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Party of the People: A History of the Democrats Hardcover – November 4, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (November 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375507426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375507427
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 1.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Given the Democratic Party's fundamental role in shaping the United States, a history of the Democrats, "the world's oldest existing party," demands a virtual history of American government. In Jules Witcover's massive Party of the People: A History of the Democrats he attempts to capture the party's long evolution in a single volume. Though Witcover is sometimes burdened by the need to condense complex political events into textbook summaries, the book is authoritative and often useful as a first resource for political history.

From the start, Witcover draws from "the two disciplines of contemplative history and contemporary or ‘instant' history" to varying degrees of success. Party of the People is best when "instant" history holds sway, most notably in discussions of the Clinton and Gore presidential runs, where Witcover includes snippets of controversial speeches and press conferences. Earlier chapters, however, neglect primary source material under the pressure to summarize. Witcover's coverage of Andrew Jackson, for example, lacks direct citations that would bolster "Old Hickory's" reputation as a charismatic figure. While comprehensive at the federal executive level, the book is uneven in its treatment of the other levels and branches of government. Also, Witcover tends to underplay the role of slavery in the early history of the Democrats, especially in his explanations of Jefferson's "agrarian" virtue.

The book ends just as President George W. Bush has launched the war in Iraq and the Democratic candidates are lining up for the 2004 election. Looking ahead, Witcover sees the Democratic Party in a period of "identity crisis and dilemma." But, despite the contentious atmosphere between the liberal Campaign for America's Future and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, he finds a common thread that connects modern Democrats to their founder, Thomas Jefferson: the "commitment to social and economic justice." While not perfect, Party of the People's treatment of the Democratic Party's quest for justice offers a valuable reference for students and educators. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

The Democrats are the oldest political party in the world, with a legacy stretching back to the infighting among members of George Washington's administration. Witcover's thick history devotes significant space to the party's perpetual struggle to define itself, with detailed accounts of intraparty rivalries and convention intrigues between geographical and ideological factions, as well as efforts throughout the 20th century to create a "brain trust" leadership. Like Lewis Gould's Grand Old Party (Forecasts, Aug. 11), this is essentially a history of presidents and also-rans with some attention to the congressional record (though House Speaker Tip O'Neill's opposition role during the Reagan years is a surprising omission). The FDR section inevitably serves as a centerpiece, encapsulating all the issues-social reform, government programs, race, international relations-with which the party has wrestled before and since, while underscoring the author's talent for tracking shifting political alliances. Although Witcover has a half-century's journalistic experience, much of it on the Democratic campaign trail, he rarely (and subtly) interjects personal observations, nimbly handling an unavoidable discussion of his own part in getting Thomas Eagleton off the 1972 ticket. The campaigns he witnessed are presented in colorful detail, but then so are those from the early 1800s, showing how the mud slung against Jefferson and Jackson compares to that thrown against Clinton. Between the two party histories, his is more dynamic and, despite the greater length, more readable as well, almost always forgoing overt analysis for illuminating description. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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More About the Author

Jules Witcover is one of the most distinguished and recognized of the veteran Washington correspondents. A former political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, he is the author of numerous books, including 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy, Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, The Party of the People: A History of the Democrats, and The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Gaetan Lion on November 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book on the history of the Democratic party. One marvel of American democracy is the durability of its founding principles. The same consistency doesn't apply to the nation's two major political parties. The Democratic Party, created in the factional tumult of post-revolutionary days, has changed from a predominantly rural, racist, states' rights party into an organ of urban minorities, liberals, and federal power. The one constant among Democrats was best identified by Will Rogers: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."
Witcover writes at length of the key figures in Democratic annals such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and FDR, with an eye for details that bring history to life. His description of the ailing Roosevelt's duplicitous scheming to replace Vice President Henry A. Wallace with Missouri Senator Harry S Truman in 1944 offers insight into the great Democrat's character. But Witcover also devotes space to important but lesser-known figures: Martin Van Buren, for instance, was a wily New York Senator whose skillful 1828 promotion of Andrew Jackson's war-hero image paved the way for modern electioneering.
Although Witcover, a liberal columnist, is sympathetic to the Democrats, he doesn't hesitate to condemn the party's dark moments. A particularly odious Democrat, in Witcover's mind, is 15th President James Buchanan, a virulent racist who, in the years just before the Civil War, blamed national friction on the Northern abolitionists he said were stirring up slaves with hopes of freedom.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Tom Moran on April 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Jules Witcover's Party of the People is an impressive attempt to crunch the 200-plus year history of the Democratic Party, from its beginnings in the 18th Century to the ignominious debacle of the 2000 Presidential election, into slightly more than 800 pages of text. Such efforts are always open to objection that the author left out this or that aspect of its subject that is worth attention - here, however, I am left amazed at how successfully the author has marshaled his facts.
Witcover is no party hack. When the Democrats have disgraced themselves during their long history, he is not afraid to say so. Parts of the story that might ordinarily seem to be somewhat less than interesting (such as the long absence of the Democrats from the White House in the decades after the Civil War) are made more interesting than they otherwise might seem. Controversial matters, such as the sex scandal that engulfed President Clinton's second term and almost toppled him from power, are dispatched with both admirable objectivity and amazing concision - it's hard for me to see how such a tawdry story could be told more fairly.
Witcover's style is serviceable without being either obtrusively literary or academically pedestrian, although there is the occasional misstep - when he writes of House Speaker Newt Gingrich being compared to Darth Vader, I don't think labeling Vader as "the wicked villain of the Star Wars films" is quite necessary - besides, isn't the term "wicked villain" just a little redundant? But such stylistic gaucheries are rare - in general, this is a terrific book on a subject that all political junkies will find fascinating. In this year especially, it's probably a worthwhile thing for people to know what values the Democratic Party stand for, since this country is in need of those values now more than ever. Read this book.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Larry P. Witmer on February 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Not a bad book, but way too focused on presidential politics. Perhaps this should not be a surprise, given the author's long history as a Washington reporter, but believe it or not, there really is a Democratic party that exists outside the beltway. You would just never know it by reading this book. Instead of plunging into excruciating detail about FDR conversations with his staff, why not spend some pages describing the role of the Democratic party at least at the regional level? For example, the role of Southern Democrats with Jim Crow laws and blocking of civil rights?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. Burns on July 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Jules Witcover's _Party of the People_ traces the Democratic Party from its Jeffersonian roots, through the tumultuous Civil War period and into the modern party dominated by the four terms of Franklin Roosevelt. Witcover's well-researched tome, the companion to _Grand Old Party_, the Republican history volume, sheds light on the previously forgotten likes of Benjamin Harrison, James K. Polk, John Tyler and the notorious James Buchanan in short, 20-page chapters that take history one term at a time.

The 730+ page length of this book makes it forbidding for some casual readers, and in some parts the text is dry and overly academic, but the vasty majority of Witcover's work in _Party of the People_ is a commendable history of America's oldest political party.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Seth J. Frantzman HALL OF FAME on November 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover
A very unbiased and interesting account. This volume, which is well researched, does a good job looking at the Democratic party. From the split over the civil war to the party of racial suppression to the party of the `cross of gold' under Bryan to Wilson and FDR. The party of the New Deal and the party that exposed the `missile gap' and began the Vietnam War. The Party that took down Nixon and finally found victory in 1992. An interesting well written account that follows the Democratic party from its southern slave holding roots to its `big tent' policies of the 1930s and 1990s.
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