Monday, July 21, 2008I don't know if I remembered to put Marathon on my list of "what I'm reading," but I think the book is interesting and topical enough to warrant a short review. The book is a detailed examination of the long presidential election of 1976, written by professional journalist Jules Witcover. Now Witcover has done some good work over the years, and Marathon is definitely both detailed and readable. I read the book when I was in college, but the years since then have given me a very different interpretation of the book. When I was 20 I thought the book was a bit long and occasionally boring, if very informative. Now I think it's fascinating, but perhaps not for the reasons Witcover might have thought when he wrote it.
The book suggests that despite all the changes that have taken place in American politics over the last 32 years, when it comes to media reporting nothing has changed. Witcover clearly didn't like Jimmy Carter - he thought he was a weirdo and a bit of a phony. Witcover just as clearly like Gerald Ford on a personal level, and was very close to Ford's key staff - in particular, Chief of Staff Richard Cheney. A great deal of the coverage of the campaign appears to have been filtered through the press corps' unease about Carter. The book makes the press seem petulant and trivial: angry at Carter's relative isolation from the press, and eager to focus on "gotcha" moments and "gaffes."
Most absurdly, Witcover seems to blame the candidates for this state of affairs. But I wonder, what a coincidence it would be if for the last 32 years we have only had candidates who were willing to wage trivial and boring campaigns. Might it be possible that it is the singular institution of the press, with its flagrant biases, loathing of substantial policy, and unbelievable sense of entitlement that has trivialized American political life? Wouldn't that be a simpler explanation?
All I can say is, after reading Witcover's book, the 2008 election seems distressingly familiar.