Winner Take Nothing

Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976

by Jules Witcover
Viking, 684 pp., $14.95

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter; drawing by David Levine

If you’re up for instant nostalgia (rhymes with neuralgia), do you remember “ethnic purity,” “lust in the heart,” what Betty Ford would do if her daughter had an affair, and Earl Butz’s incisive description of the three things the “coloreds” really want? That and every other detail about the 1976 presidential marathon is in Jules Witcover’s Marathon, which will make you feel as if you’ve just run twenty-six miles when you break the tape on the 656th page.

Like some of the candidates who began the quest on page one, Witcover’s book is honest, conscientious, accurate, so far as I can tell, and filled with information that the specialist will doubtless find useful. The rest of us may reexperience the same glazed eyes and headache we got the first time they described the ins-and-outs of the Iowa Democratic state caucus to us. Just as the various contestants for the presidency last year had such difficulty in discovering what the issues were, so Witcover, who is a superb reporter, hasn’t been able to find a point of view from which to write his book. He’s settled instead for organizing it chronologically, which makes it read like a very long, very well done newspaper article, and, while that may not be history, it’s a large improvement over Theodore White, who describes elections as other men have written the lives of the saints.

Yet if history is more than narration, Marathon fails to explain why Jimmy Carter is living in the White House save that he and two or three arriviste younger confederates played early-worm-gets-the-bird and outhustled his competitors to the presidency. It seems to be the author’s belief that anyone with the smarts and gumption to get his mojo moving and his momentum rolling in the early primaries and caucuses would have won. All other things being equal, that may be so; but there is evidence aplenty in this book that Jimmy Carter was doing other things to get the job he now holds besides reciting the Boy Scout Oath at testimonial dinners.

Witcover quotes from a telling memorandum submitted to Carter by Hamilton Jordon at the beginning of their efforts:

Like it or not there exists an Eastern liberal news establishment which has tremendous influence in this country all out of proportion to its actual audience. The views of this small group of opinion makers and the papers they represent are noted and imitated by other columnists and newspapers throughout the country and the world. Their recognition and acceptance of your candidacy as a viable force with some chance of success could establish you as a serious contender worthy of the financial support of major party contributors. They could have an equally adverse effect, dismissing your effort as being regional or an attempt to secure the second spot on the ticket.

Regardless of whether or not it’s liberal, there is…

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