Out Run Politics
At first glance, the election of 1984 may not seem remarkable. Bookended by the elections of 1980 and 1988—both exemplars of shifts in political ideology—the election in which the American people reelected the incumbent Ronald Reagan might seem unnecessary to investigate. But when Reagan heralded the coming of “Morning in America” in the election of 1980, the Democratic Party pledged to challenge the Radical Right as soon as the opportunity presented itself. William A. Henry III’s book Visions of America: How We Saw the 1984 Election addresses the struggle of Democrats to attain the presidency. According to Henry, “the story of every election begins, at the latest, on the morning after the last one;” thus, the Democrats would begin formulating their plan to defeat Reagan once candidates declared their intentions to run for president.1 Although the result of the election favored Reagan and continued the conservative trend of the 1980s, the presidential campaign, mid-decade, exposed American citizens to opposing viewpoints and caused many to reevaluate their images of the future of the United States.
In order to provide context for the election year, Henry delves into events spanning from the 1960s to Reagan’s first term in 1980. He commences with the strategy Democrats must master in order to win the election: “to turn the public’s focus exclusively toward politics and away from deeply felt nonpolitical concerns of character, faith, and spirit,” on which Reagan had already capitalized.2 Henry then proceeds to provide a condensed biography of Reagan and his political experience leading up to the election of 1984. Maintaining that Reagan’s childhood and acting experience shaped the man’s political ideals and charisma, Henry reveals probable motives for Reagan’s motives. Due to Reagan’s experience with a drunken father who managed family resources poorly, Henry provocatively concludes that Reagan adopted the view of limited welfare and “small town charity,” which “might offer scant aid to the likes of his own father.”3 Later, in Reagan’s career as an actor, his attempts to “tread the middle ground seemed only to sabotage…his film career,” as he allied with the House Un-American Activities Committee, yet continued to vote as a Democrat.4 In his relationship with Nancy Davis, Reagan’s view of male dominance can be seen in how Nancy gave up her career to marry him and raise their children, unlike Reagan’s first wife, Jane Wyman. As president, although Reagan embodied “the country’s idealized image of itself,” his inconsistencies lead many to doubt his ability to complete another term.5 In the next election cycle, the American public would focus on the issues of fairness, pluralism, and peace, which the Democrats claimed as their own.
Under Reagan, the Republicans held a common front of ideology, but the Democrats were conversely broken up into multiple factions, which threatened their ability to gain the presidency. Although the electoral base implied that the Democratic Party’s “numerical strength was tangible; its intellectual identity was not.”6 In some ways this disunity moved the party away from conformity, and provided a strategy that “rested on the notion of coalition: people were addressed, not as individuals, but as members of demographic groups.”7 The factions in the party derived a measure of unity from their common opposition to Reagan. Nevertheless, after the first debate of October 1983 at Town Hall in New York City, candidates clearly aligned with specific coalitions: “Mondale…for the old New Deal coalition; Glenn, Hollings, and Askew for the centrists; Hart for the technocratic wing of the reformers; Cranston and McGovern for their pacifist-isolationist wing.”8 After establishing the identity of the running mates, Henry begins detailing each candidate’s constituents and challenges for recognition as a legitimate candidate alongside the popular Mondale—an experienced politician—and Glenn—a former astronaut and senator. One “also-ran” candidate, Gary Hart, attracted the attention of many college students, in a manner similar to that of Bernie Sanders today, by proclaiming “new ideas” and a “new generation of leadership.”9 The failure of a movie, The Right Stuff, about Glenn’s contributions as an astronaut, “seemed to symbolize all the misguided, optimistic assumptions that underlay his campaign” and damaged Glenn’s changes for the nomination.10 After the Iowa caucuses, the least popular also-rans pulled out of the race, leaving Mondale, Hart, Jackson, Glenn, and McGovern to battle for the nomination in June.
Despite Mondale’s original success, Hart surged ahead in February by winning the New Hampshire primaries, partially due to his “physical charisma and “quick, elliptical [speaking] style suited to television.”11 Jesse Jackson also drew attention from both the blacks he mainly addressed and whites, because of his connection with Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC in combination with his variety of rhetorical expression. In many instances, Jackson’s phrase “let’s talk black talk” confused reporters as to if a conversation was off-the-record, and ultimately lead to the “Hymie” story in which Jackson’s racial slurs against Jewish people became national news.12 Other curves on the road to the nomination included Mondale’s comeback in the first Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses and Hart’s downfall due to investigation into his adolescent years, from which Americans concluded he was not “the man he portrayed himself to be.”13 Over the summer, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles demonstrated national tensions debated in the presidential race such as racial equality and détente exemplified by the seemingly equal representation of African-American athletes and the Soviet bloc boycott of the Olympics. The Soviet boycott was a counterpart to the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Mondale “dared to be cautious” in choosing Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his vice-president.14 Despite the controversy surrounding the location of the convention due to the homosexuality in San Francisco, the attendees were “a cross section of upper Middle America.”15 The highlight of the convention was New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s speech, which both united the party by comparing them to family and pointed out the disparity of wealth in the country.
Unfortunately, with the little time Mondale had to vet Ferraro, the press began to raise questions about the legality of her family’s finances regarding taxes, her husband’s business, and her spousal exemption in Congress from having to disclose tax returns. Although Mondale was pleased with Ferraro’s “clear demonstration of leadership, of strength, of candor, of failures that the American people will respond to favorably” at an open press conference, the uncertainty tainted Mondale’s public image.16 At the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Reagan’s “talk of the future” had “no vision, no goal, barely even an evocation of principle.”17 After Labor Day, the American people seriously started considering the presidential candidates and listened avidly to the debate on October 7. Mondale defied expectations as he came across stronger than Reagan, which made it imperative for Reagan to continue his advertising campaign. But the American people identified more with Reagan’s “strength of spirit” and Reagan beat Mondale in a landslide, winning every state except Mondale’s home of Minnesota.18 Despite Reagan’s faults, he “conveyed a vision of America…more of pride than purpose” to unite Americans around a common national heritage.19
William A. Henry III’s message is that the future of America depends on candidates and the voters; both are deeply invested in the outcome. When the Democrats were disunified in their approach, the citizenry voted for the candidate with a clearer vision for America, Ronald Reagan. Despite Henry’s criticisms of Reagan’s inconsistencies, he admits that Reagan’s “redefinition of what we admire in our national character proved to be the irresistible force of the campaign.”20 After identifying the failure of Democrats to capitalize on the idealism of their voters, Henry explicitly defines adversities in the campaign. Despite disappointment for the Democrats, the book is permeated with a sense of optimism and perseverance, a possible remnant of the consensus historiography prevalent during Henry’s childhood.
Information about Henry’s brief but prestigious life is scarce. His young adulthood and education on the East Coast at Yale, however, may have informed his liberal and urban biases. As a professed liberal journalist, he cannot be objective on the merits of journalism, and comments such as “reporters operate more form intuition and extrapolation than from sweeping factual knowledge” and “journalists should be bigger celebrities than the people whom they cover,” demonstrate his admissions of the faults of the industry.21, 22 Another idiosyncrasy present in the work is Henry’s use of an anti-Nordic bias to vilify Mondale, as seen in statements comparing Mondale to the “gloomy, ascetic Norse clergymen from whose line he sprang.”24 Although they add visual imagery, these ad hominem attacks, which are simply assumed from the fact that Mondale’s father was a Norwegian-American Lutheran clergyman, detract from the message of the book. As a liberal, it is possible that Henry dislikes Mondale because he lost the Democrats the presidency and Henry praises Hart because he might have had a better chance. If Henry had written this book a few years later, however, his adoration of Gary Hart might not be so engrained because in 1987, Hart’s affair with Donna Rice caused him to withdraw from the 1988 election. The 1980s were a decade of despair for many Democrats frustrated with the conservative rule of the seemingly inept Reagan. Explaining the decline, Henry’s most famous book, In Defense of Elitism, proposes that the death of liberalism had come from a misunderstanding of egalitarianism. Both books incorporate political and cultural historiography to explain the minute details that cause broad trends such as the rise of Neo-conservatism in society.
Two reviews reveal more of how the political science community received Henry’s Visions of America. For Henry’s first novel, both reviewers Richard Eder and Donald Freeman agree the book is well-written and follows its aim to be a narrative, not a behind-the-scenes snapshot. Eder believes, however, that Henry’s “purpose is unfeasible” because “the 1984 campaign was largely a battle of media perceptions.”25 Freeman disagrees in declaring that Henry is following in the “footsteps of Theodore White and H. L. Mencken in reporting American presidential contests,” and the book is “a welcome addition to the literature on one of the most complex political events we political scientists have the responsibility to explain.”26 Again, Eder takes a more critical viewpoint, plainly stating that “if Henry abstains from any real re-thinking, he also avoids updating” in terms of informing the audience about the lives of candidates since the election.”27 Eder identifies Henry’s love-affair with Hart’s personality and asserts that “for all his other qualities, Hart was a kind of black hole when it came to wittiness.”28 Recognizing Henry’s significant first effort, Freeman concedes that although the book is “atheoretical,” it envelops the “why” of history as well.29
Henry’s engaging writing style enhances the book’s purpose in delivering information about a complicated election to a layman. His narrative thread throughout the book keeps the attention of a more literary-minded reader, and breathes life into dull speeches. Philosophical comments at the beginnings and shocking statements at the ends of chapters make the book comparable to a novel, albeit a novel with many names, dates, and locations of events that changed the country’s history. Similarly, chapter titles full of pithy wordplay such as “Ambitions” and “Subtractions,” provide a focus for each section of the narration, which implies a greater universal theme. Literary characteristics in combination with compelling descriptions of campaign drama such as Mondale’s announcement to raise taxes—“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes…And so will I”—make this book a treat for a student of both history and English.30
The fact that the election of 1984 resulted in a Republican victory for Reagan, the front man of the conservative movement, supports the trend that the United States turned away from 1960s liberalism toward conservatism. Many of the candidates in the election were white, Anglo-Saxon, wealthy men; however, the participation of Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro set precedent for future elections. Within the Democratic Party, ethnicity and diversity were major considerations for the audiences of speeches, and display the beginnings of identity politics. At the first Town Hall debate in 1983, when describing “people who must be consulted when taking any major governmental initiative, he [Mondale] invoked, in a litany, ‘blacks Hispanics, Asians, Indians, women, ethnics.’”30 Jesse Jackson also worked as part of the SCLC with Martin Luther King Jr., although the King family did not support him in the presidential race. Jackson’s separatist views and focus on his black constituency with the goal of gaining recognition as an important black leader hearken back to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. The joy over the choice of Ferraro as first female vice-president also implies that women still held an inferior status in public and desired liberation from male dominance. With Democrats often leading the way, minorities gained public visibility and actual representation, despite an era of conservatism.
Beyond the events of a single election year, Henry explains the opposition to Reagan in the mid-1980s and why the Democrats failed to prevent his second term. The disunity portrayed by the election events, however, could not stop the American people from discovering national pride and challenging social norms of treatment for minorities.
1. Henry, William A. Visions of America: How We Saw the 1984 Election. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press. 1985. 58.
2. Henry, William A. 4-5.
3. Henry, William A. 7.
4. Henry, William A. 13.
5. Henry, William A. 3.
6. Henry, William A. 51
7. Henry, William A. 53.
8. Henry, William A. 86.
9. Henry, William A. 99.
10. Henry, William A. 95.
11. Henry, William A. 120.
12. Henry, William A. 124.
13. Henry, William A. 137.
14. Henry, William A. 172
15. Henry, William A. 183
16. Henry, William A. 206.
17. Henry, William A. 221.
18. Henry, William A. 254.
19. Henry, William A. 263.
20. Henry, William A. vii.
21. Henry, William A. 74.
22. Henry, William A. 95.
23. Henry, William A. 67.
24. Henry, William A. 118.
25. Eder, Richard. “Richard Eder: Visions of America: How We Saw the 1984 Election: By William A. Henry III.” Los Angeles Times, 1985. Web. 22 May 2016.
26. Freeman, Donald M. “Book Reviews: American Politics.” American Political Science Review 80.3 (Sep., 1986): 1021-023. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2016.
27. Eder, Richard. 28. Eder, Richard. 29. Freeman, Donald M. 30. Henry, William A. 195. 31. Henry, William A. 83.