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Reliving the 1984 presidential campaign

The Outside Story: How Democrats and Republicans Reelected Reagan, by Richard Brookhiser. New York: Doubleday & Co. 299 pp. $17.95. Richard Brookhiser covered the 1984 presidential campaign for the conservative magazine National Review (where he was recently named managing editor). This book, his first, is largely a collection of his reports on the campaign, deftly woven together so that the seams don't show. Unfortunately, the book falls through the crack where journalism and history imperfectly join.

Brookhiser is a first-rate political reporter. He is intelligent and has a good eye. And it seems safe to say that, though he is barely into his 30s, as a stylist Brookhiser has few peers in American journalism today.

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He certainly was diligent. For 18 months before the election, beginning with the earliest ``beauty contest'' straw polls by state party activists for ``unannounced'' candidates, Brookhiser seems to have been everywhere two or more presidential aspirants elbowed for advantage. As a result, his dispatches add up to a comprehensive narrative of the campaign.

We get what Brookheiser calls the ``outside story'' of the election, meaning that we're not to look to him for juicy tidbits about backstairs politicking gleaned from campaign insiders. He has undertaken, he tells us, to present a voter's-eye view of the campaign, not the view of one with privileged access to the inner workings.

His rather starchy justification for this approach -- that American elections are determined less by political legerdemain than by voters' common-sense judgments based on what candidates say and do in public -- though unexceptionable, seems disingenuous. Brookhiser has made a virtue of necessity. Most of the action in '84 was on the Democratic side, and the Democratic pols were unlikely to vouchsafe much inside dope to a reporter for the magazine that Reagan recently said ``is to the offices of the West Wing of the White House what People magazine is to your dentist's waiting room.''

But there is nothing whatever wrong with Brookhiser's approach, and he carries out his intention with skill and grace. While he doesn't try to extinguish his own philosophical and political predilections, neither does he allow them to obscure his view. As the venerable liberal columnist Murray Kempton acknowledges in his introduction, Brookhiser displays ``the only sort of mind we have any right to require, which is not the one that can be changed in its foundations, but the one that can be touched even against its will.''

The book's flaws are not those of execution, but of imagination. While it is not without flashes of insight, ``The Outside Story'' -- though published a year and a half after the election -- adds surprisingly little to our understanding of the event. It is aptly named: It explains how the people reelected Ronald Reagan in 1984 without ever really telling why.

Brookhiser rarely rises above the level of analysis offered by the pundits during the campaign itself, which at least was important by reason of its possible effect on ongoing events. It is disappointing to discover that this able young writer has provided little more than an elegant recounting of events still warm to the touch.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a writer for not producing a book different from the one he chose to write. Yet surely we had good reason to expect a weightier achievement from a writer of Richard Brookhiser's intellect and talent, a man who, after all, occupies a lofty position in American opinion journalism.

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