The time is 1978, and the late Mayor Daley's political machine can no longer deliver an election. The old Democratic formulas have been challenged by a new coalition of blue-collar suburbanites and down-state Republicans. The electorate is distracted and lulled by television, which is the only instrument by which voters can be reached any longer.
Although only in his 50s, Sen. James T. Heller makes little effort to alter his campaign to accommodate these new political realities until, with just two months to go, the polls show him dropping steadily from his once-comfortable lead. Against the advice of his friends and staff, Heller hires Richard Cutler, a soulless media adviser, who tells him to halt the old press-the-flesh campaign swings through rural towns and urban wards in favor of appearances staged solely for Cutler's camera in the major media markets of the state. Cutler rewrites the campaign budget to put almost all of Heller's resources into television. Put another way, Cutler won't let Sen. Heller play in Peoria any more unless it will look good on the Chicago evening news when he does it.
Now Cutler is apolitical in the sense that his passion for politics extends not to issues but only to victories. He has never lost an election. It does not bother him that he has already lost his wife in the process. With the enthusiastic cooperation of the press and television reporters, for whom it is welcome grist, Cutler's saturation campaign projecting the new image revitalizes Heller's candidacy, demonstrated by remarkable and eventually suspect improvement in his standing in the weekly poll.
John Bartlow Martin, a journalist, speechwriter and biographer of Adlai Stevenson, avoids many of the pitfalls of the Washington novel by keeping out of Washington. Almost everything takes place in Illinois. Yet there is that nagging problem, endemic to the genre, that crops up even out on the husting: our expectation of senatorial majesty, ability and wisdom is inevitably disappointed. The title of senator overwhelms us with its connotation of power and importance. But perhaps the true role of all senators, both in fiction and in fact, is to disillusion.
This is one of those novels that, while well within the ample bounds that govern this form of expression, sometimes veer so sharply toward journalism that they occasionally lose fictional credibility. It is odd, for example, that no one in the book -- not even Heller's Republican opponent -- appears to be disturbed that Heller, who has been in the Senate for only one year, got there when the incumbent died; Heller, then serving as governor, arranged to resign and secure the appointment.
In the real 1978, Wendell Anderson, a former governor of Minnesota who had resigned in order to be appointed to former Senator Mondale's term, lost his attempt to be elected to the seat in his own right. It was a destructive compaign issue for him, and one wonders why none of the characters are worried about it in this novel. Fact needn't supplant fiction. But there are vulnerable thresholds of credibility in fiction where we need to find verisimilitudes, particularly where the lines of fact and fiction are as close as they are in this novel.
Withal, Martin tells a fast-paced and exciting story that evokes the anguish and hard work of all campaigns. "The Televising of Heller" skillfully suggests the endless dispute over how much time and resources ought to be devoted to creating and projecting a candidate's image when he already has a good record of service of which the voters, in a logical world, need only be reminded of in order for them to elect him.
A tangible human presence and substantive ideas may no longer be the cutting edge of a political campaign, and "The Televising of Heller" is at its most perceptive in revealing the politics behind the cameras. Television cuts the viewer off from the actual doings of a campaign, activities that in an earlier time would have been the subject of rabid public attention. While none of the characters in this novel shed any tears over this modern tendency to present the wrapped package while hiding its complex manufacture, we are left with the suggestion that the damage to the participants and to the public interest is greater than the reward.