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March 20, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

HOLD ON, MR. PRESIDENT by Sam Donaldson (Fawcett Crest/Ballantine: $4.95) A lively account of the TV newsman's life and career, from his Texas boyhood (a discipline problem from the outset, he once shot out the front tooth of one of his family's farm workers with a BB gun, and his parents chose to enroll him at New Mexico Military Institute) through the ranks of radio and TV, to his best-known role as White House correspondent for ABC television.

Donaldson's detractors will be disappointed at the lack of any perceptible political ideology evident in these pages; he distrusts political power of any stripe, and does so often with genuine fondness and admiration for the objects of his scrutiny.

The book's considerable charm is in its anecdotes and its clear-sighted depiction of the various ways government distorts and manipulates the news we see and hear. While Donaldson's case is convincing, it is, for all that, somewhat tame. In celebrating his many victories over government campaigns of "disinformation," there is little room for real outrage at the status quo.

THE NAZI DOCTORS Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton (Basic Books: $12.95) Winner of the 1987 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the category of history, "The Nazi Doctors" is a brilliant analysis of how Nazi doctors, "in precise and absolute violation of the Hippocratic oath," participated in mass murder and genocide. Robert Jay Lifton, himself a renowned psychiatrist and author, interviewed physicians who were "significantly involved" in Nazi medicine, former Nazi non-medical professionals and also former Auschwitz prisoners who had worked on the medical blocks, more than half of them doctors and the majority of them Jewish.

In chillingly clinical detail, Lifton describes how Nazi ideology applied the medical metaphor of healing to what it considered a diseased body politic as it purged itself of "life unworthy of life"--that is, the sick, the crippled, the mentally impaired, and those "contaminated" by Jewish, Gypsy or other non-Aryan blood. "The killing program was led by doctors from beginning to end," through coercive sterilization, carbon monoxide, lethal injections, yet "not a single Nazi doctor . . . arrived at a clear, ethical evaluation of what he had done and what he had been part of." The sordid, cruel facts, disturbing enough to a reader, must have been far more chilling for Lifton: He is descended from East European Jews.

WATCHING TELEVISION edited by Todd Gitlin (Pantheon Books: $9.95) A collection of essays about television edited by Todd Gitlin, whose "Inside Prime Time" was one of the most interesting and challenging books on the subject.

The authors compended in this volume--Daniel C. Hallin on the news industry, Ruth Rosen on the politics of soap operas, Tom Englehardt on children's television, Gitlin on commercials, among others--are united in their fascination with television's pervasive scope and influence. As Mark Crispin Miller writes, in an essay on prime time, "TV's reflection on the knowing viewer is a cynical appeal not only to the weakest part of each of us, but to the weakest and least experienced among us. . . . Night after night, TV displays a bright infinitude of goods, employs a multitude of shocks and teases; and the only purpose of that spectacle is to promote the habit of spectatorship. It celebrates unending 'choice' . . . by offering us a beautiful hallucination of diversity, but it is finally like a drug whose high is only the conviction that its user is too cool to be addicted."

MARYA, A LIFE by Joyce Carol Oates (Berkeley Books: $3.95) Marya Knauer grows up in brutal poverty. Her father is beaten to death in a tavern brawl; her mother abandons her and her two brothers to be cared for by an aunt and uncle. At 8 years old, an older cousin molests her; at 18, having won a scholarship to a state university, she's raped by resentful classmates after a high school graduation party.

The novel is the story of Marya's painful emancipation through education from the misery of her past. By book's end, transformation complete, she'll be a tenured professor at a New Hampshire college, a noted author and cultural critic. But academia becomes Marya's entire life. She grows more and more abstract and intellectual; and lonely. She returns in the end to her native Innisfail in search of what she has lost. A powerful, well-wrought novel.

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