NO WAY TO PICK A PRESIDENT

By Jules Witcover

Farrar Straus Giroux. 303 pp. $26

In recent years, political reporters have written a number of books chronicling the waning fortunes of American politics. The authors tend to be veteran journalists who believe that in the past three decades government in the United States has turned into a corrupt, ineffectual entity incapable of meeting public needs and improving civic society. The best such books --for example, "The System," David Broder and Haynes Johnson's richly detailed account of the 1994 health care reform debacle, and "Fortress America," William Greider's evocative expose of the military-industrial complex--use detailed reporting to argue convincingly that politics in this country has indeed taken a turn for the worse.

Jules Witcover is a longtime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and a syndicated columnist who, like many of his peers in the press, sees the story of American politics since the 1960s as one of decline. In his bluntly titled lament, "No Way to Pick a President," Witcover takes to the woodshed the presidential election process, depicting it as a sinister system incapable of producing top-notch candidates and serious discussions about important national issues. His argument is provocative but suffers from the same problems plaguing many of the less compelling works about a political system on the wane.

He begins with a simple premise: Presidential elections once were measured and reasonable exercises in American democracy in which good men ran for high office, reporters possessed a strong sense of public purpose, and voters flocked to polling booths. But, according to Witcover, over the past 30 years these once edifying events degenerated into an "orgy of no-holds-barred warfare"--knock-down, drag-out brawls that discourage good people from seeking high office and turn off voters already fed up with a system run amok.

Witcover paints a dark picture of the modern-day presidential campaign. He describes a process in which self-serving politicians go to great lengths to avoid taking strong stands on controversial issues; corporate interests channel millions of dollars into campaign coffers; pollsters, media consultants and "hired guns" blister opponents with biting attack ads while political reporters spend hours on television discussing electoral winners and losers months before voters even think about going to the polling booth. Sensationalism and sleaze now dominate the process, Witcover complains, tainting everything from the primary election system ("A Process Gone Berserk") to national party conventions ("Coronations, Not Conventions") to coverage of the campaigns by television ("The 800-Pound Gorilla").

Witcover makes a number of salient observations about presidential campaigns, and most politicians and reporters would likely agree that candidates spend too much time raising money, participating in superficial events, spouting platitudes and mounting shrill attacks on the enemy camp. The press also seems too quick to pounce on the scandal of the moment, and it seems fair to argue (as Witcover does) the entire process could benefit from reforms aimed at alleviating fund-raising pressures on candidates and improving the tone and tenor of the political dialogue.

Witcover deserves credit for summarizing many of the debates now swirling around campaigns and presidential politics, but there is a slapdash and hurried feel to much of this book. The writing is convoluted in places, paragraph-length quotations run on for too long, and extended discussions of Willie Horton campaign commercials and Donna Rice and Gary Hart seem only loosely connected to the author's larger argument about the corruption eating away at American presidential campaigns.

And like so many recent reflections on the decline of American politics, "No Way to Pick a President" contains familiar laments and oft-heard complaints about the evils of soft money, negative campaign commercials and a scandal-sniffing press corps, complaints that have been circulating on TV programs and in newspaper columns and academic literature for quite some time. This book blasts virtually everyone and everything associated with modern presidential elections, and the hyperbolic rhetoric, root-and-branch criticisms and nostalgic yearnings for a bygone era tend to weaken Witcover's major contention that campaigns were nice virtuous events that have gone down the tubes in recent years.

Ultimately, this is a much too sweeping polemic that lacks the fresh reporting and immediacy found in the best publications about a system gone to rot.