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Now in Paperback

September 20, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

The Twilight of the Presidency: From Johnson to Reagan, George E. Reedy (New American Library: $24.95; revised hardcover edition). With the recent publication of "Defiant Patriot: The Life and Exploits of Lt. Colonel Oliver North" (St Martin's: $4.95), we've seen the beginning of a predictable gush of instant books reporting on a scandal that's bound to rival the inevitable motion picture in color and drama. None of these accounts, however, is likely to be as relevant to the issues underlying the Iran-Contra affair as this updated edition of a 1970 book. Presaging Watergate, "The Twilight of the Presidency" was equally timely on its original publication. "Below the President," Reedy warned, "is a mass of intrigue, posturing, strutting, cringing and pious 'commitment' to irrelevant windbaggery."

The sentence, of course, could have been written by a curmudgeon, but George Reedy, the former special assistant to President Johnson and currently the Nieman Professor of Journalism at Marquette University, backs it up later with a largely well-reasoned argument which should have some impact in Washington. Unelected, unaccountable cabinet officials have come to command bureaucracies so huge that they are well out of control of the White House, Reedy argues. "The bureaucracy has a life of its own and, without constant prodding, will set a course that bears no relationship whatsoever to the political imperatives of the president." We haven't always seen this transition clearly because cabinet officers are still technically mere servants of the president. "But the U.S. is remarkable in it capacity to change substance without changing forms."

There are some problems "The Twilight of the Presidency," which was received warmly when it first appeared. Many will disagree with Reedy's (premature) assertion that Reagan was oblivious to the Iran-Contra affair, that this obliviousness was due to "bureaucracy," and that North's agenda conflicted with the President's "political imperatives." Moreover, clumping Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan together as "caretaker" presidents "who have done little for their country" dismisses Nixon and Carter's accomplishments in establishing closer relations with China, or Carter's clarion call to human rights, or Reagan's ideological appointees to the Supreme Court and dismantling of social programs. Much of this work is on target, however, from Reedy's assertion, in an introduction written at the outset of the Iran-Contra affair, that Reagan will continue to the end of his term, "still liked but no longer the unchallenged leader of American polity," to his recognition that more checks and balances are needed.

Mutuwhenua, The Moon Sleeps, Patricia Grace (Penguin: $4.95). Young, mobile Westerners have grown used to relinquishing the family tie as another is established through marriage. In this stylish, sensitive, vivid novel, however, the conflict between marriage and family threatens to overwhelm Ripeka, the needy, though ultimately strong Maori narrator. Ripeka's tiny, traditional New Zealand village has been largely isolated from the frenzy of the city. Now, though, change is encroaching. A boy spots a remarkable green rock and tries to sell it in the village. Natives living near where the rock was found also stake their claims, however, and soon, a village grandfather is forced to intervene, reminding all that the stone belongs only to the "hands of the earth." Initially, Ripeka's run-in with modernity is far more benign: She meets Graeme, a white schoolteacher and, ignoring her grandmother's wish that she marry a Maori, moves to the city with him. She's amazed at how people on the street "lean into each headlong step, knowing where they're going," but eventually alienated when she fears that these urbanites--Graeme included--do not understand the "reciprocity between the people and the land."

Ripeka's vulnerability in the city is not as involving as it could have been, for early in the novel we see that she has enough inner strength and direction to overcome the problem. "Because of my belief in the rightness of what had been done with the stone," she realizes in chapter two, "I can never move away from who I am . . . There was part of me that could never be given and that would not change." Ripeka's final resolution is still surprising, though, for it is altogether sanguine, discovering happiness in both her heritage and her new home. While little known in the West, Grace, a Maori teacher and writer living in New Zealand's King Country, has the visual acuity of American Indian storytellers (a white owl swoops, merging with a white rock and becoming a woman, one of many vignettes emphasizing man's proximity to nature), the character depth of contemporary American novelists, the sensitivity of feminist writers and a hope for the harmonious co-existence of tradition and change that has few antecedents.

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