Too bad the reporter who first focused all eyes on ""the snows of New Hampshire"" has turned his coverage of six presidential elections into a Grand Design of American political transformation. Except for a few passages of peppery analysis early and late, the book reads like a dirge. The great transformative factors--White's bridge between the '56 and '80 elections--turn out to be, humdrumly, the Great Society, ""the Great Inflation,"" and ""the Reign of Television."" What White seems to like least about the Great Society are the excesses of affirmative action--such as the Spanish-surname complication (a Madrid lawyer or a Marrano Jew, he notes, can claim preferential treatment). Canonically, he fingers the liberals: ""They had set out to free everyone and had created a nation of dependents instead."" The Great Inflation is also an old story: pressure for goods from the outside world; ""the ever-rising budget""; Vietnam; the indexing of Social Security payments (attributed, amusingly at least, to Wilbur Mills' brief presidential bid); and, inescapably, the oil shock. Another refrain is ""the failure of. . . American nerve to recognize or protect its interests""--firstly, during the Suez crisis (Eisenhower ""gave up our oil lifeline""); lastly, in Iran. Apropos of TV, White tells a funny story of his besting by pollster Louis Harris on election night, '58; otherwise he just takes the omnipotent-media line. As a prelude to the 1980 campaign, he has a chapter on the Carter administration--in no wise novel (the ineptitude, the non-communication, etc.); but in today's clime, generous. White, as he acknowledges in profiling the 1980 Republican hopefuls (""I make [them] sound, I know, like a Child's Garden of Candidates""), seldom speaks unkindly of any public figure; political wives (Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan) fare worse, and on political aides and old pols he's plain shrewd. White's unenthusiastic account of the '80 election (more a broad description than a chronicle) almost reduces to the Sears-Meese rivalry, in the Reagan camp (a puppet RR--or his own man?), and the Cadell-Rafshoon confrontation (popular ""malaise"" vs. a presidential energy policy), on the Carter side. What little else White details--the Ford vice-presidential snafu--has been covered more fully by (in particular) Germond and Witcover. It's as if the fun had gone out of politics for White with the entrance--another motif--of women and special-interest groups. (Stirred by Kennedy's convention speech, he descends to the floor--""then I realized how different it was. I was pushing women. . . ."" He goes to the Statler ""to see the display of what 'participation' had brought forth."") And it's almost as if American electoral politics were endangered by the ""tide"" of ""Asian-Caribbean immigration,"" ""legal and illegal""--on which White dwells in a chapter on the 1980 census, and to which he frequently refers elsewhere. Yet this is the reporter, too, who started his domestic coverage in '54 by sampling--and savoring--big-interest and ethnic politics in Chicago, Texas, New York, and California: on Daley, he writes here like Mike Royko; on outrider Texas, he's almost in a league with Ronnie Dugger (above). He also exults in the ""carnival frolic"" of the '56 Democratic convention. But that's when things started to go downhill for him, and there's little zest after that. A lot of readers are going to be let down too.