Books Give Comprehensive Looks at America’s Parties

Posted December 12, 2003 at 2:36pm

When it came to tackling the history of the Democratic Party, veteran Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover, author of the recently published tome “Party of the People: A History of the Democrats,” didn’t have to look too far for the ideal perch from which to launch his literary endeavor.

“I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress,” recalled Witcover, adding that he made ample use of an arrangement that allows authors an assigned shelf to keep Library books on during their research. That way, he “didn’t have to go every day and wait and wait and wait.”

Considering that he and colleague Lewis Gould, author of the companion book, “Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans,” only had about a year and a half to complete their task, every minute was of the essence, said Witcover, who credits the noted Kennedy historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. with providing essential assistance during the project.

Together, Witcover and Gould’s work (at a combined 1,423 pages) represents one of the few — if not the only — contemporary attempts to present a comprehensive look at the historical evolution of the United States’ storied two-party system.

Due to the broad scope of the work, both men admitted to needing some minor brushing up on various periods of U.S. history, but given their professional backgrounds, each proved more than up to the task.

Gould is a retired University of Texas at Austin history professor who has written numerous political histories, including examinations of the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Witcover, the longtime political journalist, also has myriad authorial credits to his name, including books on the presidential elections of 1980 and 1984.

In the spring of 2001 when Random House, the books’ publisher, first began putting out feelers for potential authors for the companion histories, Gould initially put his name in for the Democratic book, only to learn that Witcover had been selected for that venture.

Not long after, however, Random House approached Gould about taking on the Party of Lincoln.

“As it turned out, I didn’t mind beginning in 1854,” laughed Gould, referring to the GOP’s later date of origin.

And, while the two men never met, they did periodically consult by phone, with Gould providing historical advice and Witcover insights into the various politicians he had covered over the years, Witcover said.

“We worked as counselors to each other during the process,” he added.

Readers, even those with a good working knowledge of the American party system, will find plenty to sink their teeth into in these straightforward, yet meaty, historical narratives.

Of particular interest is Witcover’s exhaustive exploration of the early stages of the Democratic Party (which he traces back to conflicts between factions over the drafting of the Constitution), including the ironic tidbit that the Democratic Party — the oldest in the world — was first dubbed “the Republican Party” by none other than its symbolic father, Thomas Jefferson, before morphing into the Democratic-Republican and finally the Democratic Party. (And no doubt more than a few Republicans will be tickled to learn that thanks to its early pro-French orientation, it also earned the soubriquet of “the French Party.”)

In many ways, Witcover and Gould’s histories demonstrate how the parties have come full circle since their founding.

The 19th century Republican Party was “regarded as the party of big government … both in terms of the economic life and in terms of the social life,” Gould said. However, after Theodore Roosevelt, known for his progressive politics, was defeated by the more conservative William Howard Taft for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination, conservative elements would predominate, leading to the GOP’s modern-day incarnation as the party of small government, states’ rights and free trade.

Likewise, the Democratic Party, which nearly imploded over disagreements on the slavery issue, would re-emerge in the latter part of the 20th century as the “defenders of civil rights,” Witcover said.

Two constant strains running through the parties’ evolutions, however, are the populist tenor of Democratic rhetoric and Republican circumspection of Democrats’ national loyalties (a sentiment that dates back to the Democratic Party’s Southern sympathies during the Civil War).

“One constant that I noticed was a deep suspicion of the need for and the patriotism of the Democratic Party,” Gould said, adding that such sentiments have carried through to the current conflict in Iraq.

Looking ahead, both men point to next year’s presidential election as key to the parties’ trajectories, with intra-Democratic divisions and Republican conservatism central features of the current political landscape.

“If Howard Dean is the nominee it will be an all-out assault against everything the [Republican] party stands for,” asserted Witcover, who believes the other viable Democratic contenders may be somewhat “compromised” in their ability to confront Bush on the issues. Added Gould: “I think the Democratic electorate is probably more to the left than the leadership of the party. That will pose a problem for them as they try to sort out whether Howard Dean is their nominee.”

And in the short term — given the near 50-50 split of the American electorate — whether the Democratic or Republican Party proves ascendant will have much to do with the status of the twin issues of Iraq and the economy, Gould said.

As to the future of the American party system, despite the odd lurch to the right or left, Witcover is confident the current structure will endure. “There is plenty of room for people in the two parties,” he said. “We are basically — over the long period — a nation that doesn’t swing to extremes.”