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The Candidates' Men And the News Media

AMERICA'S quadrennial presidential race is a sporting event that Monday-morning political commentators analyze for a minimum of four years.

Thus, it's no surprise that elections since 1960 have spawned readable, provocative, and insightful tomes by writers like Theodore White, Timothy Crouse, Joe McGinniss, and Jules Witcover.

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As a result, any book on the 1992 presidential race must be compared with other works that examine why candidates won - or lost - and why. Tom Rosenstiel's ``Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics, 1992'' stacks up only moderately well.

For the most part, Rosenstiel, a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, adequately chronicles the big issues of the campaign. While he spends less time discussing Ross Perot's electoral impact than might be expected, he nevertheless clearly conveys the flavor of the campaign.

Rosenstiel explains early in his book that he followed the 1992 presidential race by spending an entire year with ABC News to see how the television network covered the race. But ``Strange Bedfellows'' turns out to be an example of how you can't judge a book by its title. Rather than focus on ABC, he uses the network as a springboard to comment on the Bush and Clinton campaigns, and to compare the network's coverage with that of the competition - in effect, to write the standard Who Won and How and What It All Means book. Unfortunately, short shrift is given to the What It All Means part.

How influential were ABC's World News Tonight broadcasts in shaping the outcome of the election, and what sort of impact did the show's format actually have on the outcome of the election? The reader never knows, since a persuasive case is never presented showing how this election was really changed by TV or the presidential candidates. In fact, Rosenstiel goes to lengths to show how the 1992 election simply was a logical progression from past races and that even the candidates' use of nonmainstream media was anticipated by earlier candidates.

``Strange Bedfellows'' is most effective when the author is chronicling the interplay between television and the candidates' political operatives. Seeing is not believing, especially when what is seen comes over a TV screen, and this message repeatedly comes through the pages of the book.

Rosenstiel tells how the campaigns spin-doctored and distorted the information they gave to the media, while TV attacked relatively marginal issues such as Clinton's draft record, despite evidence the public was tired of and unmoved by the story.

As for the question of who is responsible for setting the campaign agenda and thereby influencing the final outcome, ``Strange Bedfellows'' points two fingers - one at the media and one at the political campaigns.

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