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Ideologies in the making

Grand Old Party A History of the Republicans Lewis L. Gould Random House: 602 pp., $35 * Party of the People A History of the Democrats Jules Witcover Random House: 830 pp., $35

March 28, 2004|Walter Shapiro | Walter Shapiro is the author of the recently published "One-Car Caravan: On the Road With the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In."

During the wartime summer of 1944, just four years after a convention uprising awarded him the Republican presidential nomination, Wendell Willkie, a dedicated internationalist, dispatched a secret emissary to Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss party realignment. Willkie's notion of segregating the mossbacks and the isolationists in one party intrigued the Democratic president. As FDR said at the time, "We ought to have two real parties -- one liberal and the other conservative. As it is now, each party is split with dissenters."

Nothing came of this secret mission, primarily because Roosevelt and Willkie both died within a year. But in late 1945, Harry S. Truman's thinking ran along similar lines. FDR's successor expressed the hope that "there might be organized a liberal party in the country so that the Southern Democrats could go where they belonged into the conservative Republican Party."

Now nearly 60 years later, America's two political parties finally boast the ideological cohesion that they lacked during their first century of electoral jousting. The architects of this logical realignment were named Nixon and Reagan rather than Roosevelt and Truman. And it was the politics of race -- the same explosive force that created the Republican Party in 1854 from the wreckage of the Whigs -- that finally drove white Southern Democrats into the enveloping arms of the GOP.

American voters are so steeped in the two-party tradition that little time is spent mulling over the historical forces that have created the ideological rigidity of contemporary politics. The Democrats and the Republicans have been at each other's throats for so long that their enmities seem ingrained in the fabric of democracy. That is why, as the Bush-Kerry race prematurely enters its thermonuclear phase, political junkies of both the left and the right should hail the decision by Random House to commission companion volumes that chronicle the tangled histories of the two parties.

The varying perspectives of "Party of the People: A History of the Democrats" by Jules Witcover and "Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans" by Lewis L. Gould reflect more than the partisan divide. By cleverly pairing a longtime campaign reporter (Witcover) with an esteemed University of Texas historian (Gould), this project has highlighted two differing approaches to the craft of forging a coherent political narrative.

Not surprisingly, both books play to the analytical strengths of their authors. Witcover's sprawling history, which is filled with fascinating curiosities such as the Roosevelt and Truman quotes on party realignment, lacks an overarching conceptual framework and only truly comes alive with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon contest, the first race covered by the veteran newspaperman, now a Baltimore Sun columnist. Gould, who has written frequently about the period from Grover Cleveland to Woodrow Wilson, is most at home illuminating bygone battles over seemingly arcane issues like the protective tariff and free silver.

The immersion course in political history provided by Witcover and Gould should dissuade anyone from believing that there was ever a time when American elections were high-minded contests of rival ideas uncontaminated by cynical gamesmanship. Name a nefarious political gambit, and you can be pretty certain that it was attempted several times in the 19th century.

Back in 1800, as Witcover recounts, the Democrats (OK, they were called Republicans in those early days) under Aaron Burr swept the elections for the New York Legislature, which had the responsibility for choosing the state's presidential electors. To prevent the Legislature from handing New York's votes to Thomas Jefferson for president, Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton concocted a scheme to change the rules in the midst of the campaign to give the state's voters the power to directly pick the electors. Hamilton failed, but long-suffering Democrats may see a similarity to Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's recently successful efforts to jettison tradition and re-redistrict Texas in the middle of the decade to give the GOP more seats in Congress.

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