With their new book, "Wake Us When It's Over," Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, the syndicated political columnists, have added another chapter to their saga of presidential election campaigns. The lat- est work by my friends and competitors is full of the kind of insider anecdotes and skillful storytelling that made Theodore H. White's earlier "Making of the President" series such a hit.
What is striking and significant about this Germond-Witcover book is the tone of disparagement and even disgust with which these two veteran journalists view the 1984 campaign. Especially to those who know how much these two love politics, their disenchantment carries a loud message. It is a warning signal to politicians and their attendants to "clean up your act."
I say that even though I disagree strongly with parts of their indictment and have reservations about their broad charge that "in the puerile politics of 1984," the levels of demagoguery, deceit and duplicity were so high that the process was ultimately corrupting to both participants and voters.
They are certainly correct in saying that the long trek through the Democratic caucuses and primaries and the one-sided autumn finale between President Reagan and Walter F. Mondale "was no day at the beach." There were cheap shots aplenty and too many moments of tawdriness and hours of tedium.
But the politics of 1984, in my judgment, was not quite so manipulative or so empty of meaning as they argue. They object vehemently, for example, to Mondale's undermining the character of challenger Gary Hart with "the red phone" ad and attacking his policy depth with the borrowed one-liner, "Where's the beef?"
But the ad and the one-liner worked only becaue the senator from Colorado was unready to define himself or his ideas, when his upset victory in New Hampshire captured public attention. The lack of rebuttal to Mondale's attack from all but a handful of the men and women who had come to know Hart during his dozen years in national politics legitimized Mondale's assault and told the voters there was reason to have doubts about the challenger.
Similarly, Germond and Witcover are offended by Reagan's avoidance, throughout the 1984 campaign, of the substantive policy challenges of the late 1980s and his reliance on the feel- good psychology of the "morning in America" ads and the promise that "you ain't seen nothing yet."
I, too, wish Reagan had leveled with the American people about the tough choices ahead in economic and foreign policy and had not ducked the press conferences where he might have been asked about them. But the "feel- good" campaign could not have worked had inflation not subsided in his first term, had the economy not recovered and had he not withdrawn the Marines from Lebanon.
All I am saying is that there were realities behind the political slogans -- realities Mondale was able to exploit against Hart and Reagan was able to exploit against Mondale. It does the voters an injustice to suggest that they were conned.
My demurrers are much less important, however, than the strong denunciation by these two writers. Their reputations among both politicians and journalists deservedly give weight to their words. This is a strong signal to both the 1988 aspirants and to those of us in the press and television who cover them that we have to do better next time.
It's not the only such signal. Two establishment politicians, Democrat Robert S. Strauss and Republican Melvin R. Laird, head a private commission that will recommend changes and improvements in the whole presidential selection process. Later this month, the Democratic Party will launch its own reexamination of iminating procedures.
The controversy and the search for improvements is healthy. But if I can borrow an earlier Germond-Witcover book title, it's a mistake to think that the 1984 election was just "Blue Smoke and Mirrors."