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History in Sherman Park: an American family and the Reagan-Mondale election.

History in Sherman Park: An American Family and the Reagan-Mondale Election.

Jonathan Schell. Knopf, $15.95. After two pre-election visits in 1984 with a couple in the Sherman Park section of Milwaukee, Jonathan Fate-of-the-Earth Schell has found "History': one-time liberals are now too busy getting by to care about politics.

While offering thanks to the Public Agenda Foundation, Schell never says precisely how he wound up in Sherman Park. Whoever it was gave him a bum steer. He touts his hosts, Bill and Gina Gapolinsky, as if they were representative of a wider apathy in Sherman Park and across the country. (Gina on Watergate: "I have no memory of it. I was interested in interpersonal things.') But when I lived in Milwaukee, the neighborhood had long been a liberal hotbed, ever since Father James Groppi organized legions of civil rights activists there in the '60s. Hardly withdrawn, locals are still up on politics and committed to social causes. It's not Greenwich Village, but it's no backwater either.

When the Gapolinskys do say something illuminating about Reagan, Mondale, or their own feelings, Schell misses the point, even though he's had three years to mull over his notes. For instance, Bill emerges as a pragmatist. He wants a president who will accomplish something. While he is warm to the Democratic platform, Bill doubts Mondale could pull it off, so he votes for Reagan, a cando guy. Schell interprets this as part of the much-heralded dealignment of American politics. Yet, Bill doesn't seem so much depoliticized as nonplussed about the current slate of candidates. Would Bill support a dynamic Democrat? Schell never asks.

Not listening is part of Schell's larger problem. He is so wrapped up in being with the real people, that he becomes obsessed with their customs for no good reason. He makes it a point to tell us that Bill's T-Shirt says "beer' and that his brother-in-law's furniture it "antique in style, but obviously newly made.' At Bill's mom's house, there are fewer home-cooked meals, because now they're "being cooked commercially, by McDonald's or Burger King or Pizza Hut.' And the streets aren't bustling like in New York "where in some places it is hard at lunch hour to keep your foothold on the sidewalk.' His brief tour of Milwaukee does more to harm the city's good name than "Laverne and Shirley' ever could.

Schell didn't have to go all the way to Milwaukee to get a feel for what people are thinking. He could have taken the subway to Brooklyn and written the same book. Still, it's always amusing to see earnest writers venture into the midwestern wilderness, tape recorders and trail mix in hand. All things considered, though, I prefer Phil Donahue. At least he doesn't pretend to be writing history.
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Author:Byrne, Tony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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