Richard Eder : Visions of America: : How We Saw the 1984 Election : by William A. Henry III (Atlantic Monthly: $17.95; 264 pp.)

A case can be made that the U.S. presidential election campaign is not the quadrennial climax of our politics but its quadrennial exorcism. Like Easter Week in Seville, nothing else public seems to matter much; and then suddenly it is not just gone, but obliterated.

What price a trenchant look at Glenn's prospects after Iowa? Would you hock your grandmother's skates for a discussion of why Hart's yuppie vote went to Reagan? Does anyone want to meditate on the historical contradictions in the Democratic Party? How about--try real hard--a note on Mondale's buttoned jacket; or a zinger from an up-tight Mondale press staffer about when a text would be ready: "When it's ready."?

All these are in William Henry's book about the 1984 campaign; one that, in retrospect, has the stillness of a dream race where the feet are wrapped in lead and you get nowhere. It is as if Reagan were serving one swollen eight-year term with only the shadow of a break halfway through.

The author, who worked for Time magazine, writes well; but I think his purpose is unfeasible. As he and others have described it, the 1984 campaign was largely a battle of media perceptions. In terms of chronicling, it probably rates as the most self-conscious political event we have known. Its narrator--the press, that is--kept breaking off to analyze what it was doing and to make this analysis, in an important sense, the news.

Henry's book, bearing the subtitle "How We Saw the 1984 Election," does not try to go beyond or beneath the perceptions of the time. It simply recounts them once more. He does not recall the circus so much as what the barkers had to say about the circus. By and large, it has not a lot more fizz than day-old cotton candy.

Henry begins with a compressed portrait and political biography of Reagan that takes him through the governorship of California, the unsuccessful primary race against Gerald Ford, the 1980 campaign and his first term in office. It is cogently written and nicely compressed, and it contains the book's single sustained bit of personal interpretation.

Henry reviews theater for Time, and he clearly knows a lot about movies. His account of Reagan as an actor is provocative. He argues, in fact, that Reagan was quite a good actor, and upholds "Bedtime for Bonzo" as "a charming attempt to remake the screwball comedies of the 1930s for a 1951 audience." He goes on to trace the gestures that Reagan used in films, such as "the cock of the head when trying extra hard to be persuasive," through their later life in politics. He notes the ability to play widely differing roles, and adds:

"But not until he entered politics, ironically, did Reagan truly master the style of acting developed by American movie stars--exaggerated and perpetual self-impersonation."

There is a trenchant observation here and there, and an occasionally overripe literary reference. ("By the eve of the 1984 campaign, however, America had been changed utterly, and a terrible beauty born.") But for most of the time, the book is a journalistic synthesis.

Henry, like Mr. Dooley's supreme court, pretty well followed the election returns. His portrait of Mondale deviates not a button nor a stitch from the analysis and anecdotage of the time. The author, like the electorate, is hard on him. Ironically enough, his book itself is a kind of Mondale: a triumph of received opinion, decently set out.

His hindsight is like that of a rear-view mirror, receding. There was a great deal of hindsight being churned out day by day while the campaign was going on, and Henry doesn't go much beyond it. The writer trots down the corridor of history with both hands over his ears as if trying to preserve the precise mix of perception and superficiality available in the morning paper and the nightly broadcast. Jimmy Carter's curiously moving address to the Democratic convention is called, as it largely was then, "innocuous." Hart is portrayed as a "warm, wide-grinned, witty conquering hero." In fact, for all his other qualities, Hart was a kind of black hole when it came to wittiness.

Henry does the panoramic, mood-of-America bit that is dear to weekly news magazine, but tends to dry up and blow away the following week. He uses from time to time the foreshortened atmospheric effects familiar to writers with deadlines. Noting, accurately, the impact that Jeane Kirkpatrick's speech had at the Republican convention in Dallas, he gilds his lily by saying that it set "the more moderate press corps in the hall to nodding in rueful agreement." Well, he was there, and so was I; and clearly one man's Nod is another's Wynken and Blynken. And what does he mean by "moderate"?

If Henry abstains from any real re-thinking, he also avoids up-dating. It might have been interesting to know what has happened to the Democratic candidates since. Does Mondale have any perspective on the campaign? Do Fritz Hollings and John Glenn?

The author mentions Reagan's crushing of the air-controllers' strike and their leader, Robert Poli. What, I wonder, is Poli doing now? It is a small point, of course, but it seems to stand for the floating sense of aimlessness that surrounds the book. With so little to add in incident or perspective, why bother to mine memory for the dust that is already blowing off its surface?

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