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.
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