In his August, 1968 Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech, former vice-president Richard M. Nixon spoke of himself, recalling a young boy in a California citrus town who “hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go.” At just about the time that Nixon was speaking at his Miami Beach convention I was a teenaged boy who imagined he heard campaign planes fly above and dreamed of presidential elections I would witness.
Except I was doing it in books.
Indeed, for more than 50 years I have been reading American presidential-campaign books, lyrical ones and clunkers, historical tomes and journalistic accounts, scholarly monographs and anonymous accounts. For more than 40 years I have been realizing my long-ago dreams, actually covering presidential campaigns, first as a travelling political correspondent, then as a nationally syndicated columnist, most recently as a Globe and Mail contributing analyst. And in every quadrennial political cycle – especially in this year of contention and conflict – I find myself pulling a couple of campaign books from my shelf and living in a world where the candidates seem larger and the issues seem more sharply drawn.
Ordinarily the first volume I consult in moments such as these is my well-loved and well-worn copy of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 (Atheneum, 1961) – the very first book I bought with my own money. Full of personality and pop – and presenting a remarkable portrait of a younger America in the throes of both a consumer boom and the Cold War – this is the book that launched the modern genre of campaign reporting: politics from the inside.
I recently opened my old paperback at random and deep in the first paragraph on page 398 found this gem, one of a hundred, probably more, great insights beautifully crafted and crowded into every chapter about that celebrated struggle between Senator John F. Kennedy and Mr. Nixon 60 years ago: “Kennedy evoked an excitement, a response to personality. Nixon held his crowds earnestly together in a sober, intent frowning mass.” Two sentences, two enduring truths.
Together The Making of the President 1960 and the three sequels that followed – especially the volume for 1964, which in its discussion of the doomed GOP campaign of senator Barry Goldwater brilliantly presaged the conservative revolution that in time would catapult Ronald Reagan (1980), George W. Bush (2000) and Donald J. Trump (2016) into the White House – have long been regarded as the classics of the genre, unsurpassed in their readability and credibility.
Unsurpassed, that is, until Richard Ben Cramer, in his way as diligent and evocative as White, completed his 1,047-page opus on the 1988 presidential campaign bearing the spare title What It Takes (Random House, 1992).
Campaign books ordinarily are the literary equivalent of annual plants, moving from germination to blossoms and then death in one growing season. Not this book. For through artistry or through mere luck, Cramer’s book has become one of the hardy perennials of politics. It bloomed again in 1996, when one of its principal characters, senator Robert J. Dole of Kansas, won the Republican nomination and the chapters on the Kansas lawmaker were published in a separate volume, and it blossomed for a third time in 2013, when Simon & Schuster published the George H. W. Bush chapters as a separate book.
Now it is in its fourth flowering, for there breathes not a single political writer who this season has not consulted the many What It Takes chapters on former vice-president Joe Biden and found him described as someone who shined when he “courted that showdown in the sun” but who shrank when his “voice was flat, his face was drawn, and the TV lights only made him paler, thinner, less substantial.” That was Biden a third of a century ago, at 45, and this past week, at 77.
All modern campaign books have the same Greek chorus, road-weary reporters describing the main action in their drowsy song-and-dance. White described the press corps of the Kennedy-Nixon battle, then – but no longer – as an all-male fraternity, this unforgettable way: "The talk of the corps of correspondents who follow the candidates is not simply gossip; gossip is only its surface form. It is consensus – but is the tired, emotional measuring of judgments among men whom the weeks on the road have made into a brotherhood that only they understand.'' Years later, I was invited to contribute to William G. Mayer’s estimable The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2004 (Rowman & Littlefield). I gave my chapter this title: “Only a Lunatic Would Do This Kind of Work: A Journalist’s Perspective on the Perspective of Journalists.”
But the greatest perspective on the lunacy of the presidential-campaign press corps came shortly after the 1972 campaign, when a man who had taught English in Oujda, Morocco, produced a book whose phrase has entered the political lexicon. In The Boys on the Bus (Random House, 1973), Timothy Crouse cast a skeptical eye on his companions on the campaign trail.
In just one of many evocative passages, Crouse celebrated the independence of the young correspondent Curtis Wilkie, who 24 years later would share double bylines with me as a Boston Globe colleague, and he went on to draw, mordantly but accurately, a contrast with many of Wilkie’s less daring fellow-travellers on the American political hustings: “There were still lazy men on the bus, and men with large families to defend or powerful ambitions to nurture, who feared losing their jobs and thus played it safe by sticking with the pack. And there were still editors whose suspicions of any unusual story made pack journalism look cozy and inviting to their reporters. Campaign journalism is, by definition, pack journalism; to follow a candidate, you must join the pack of other reporters; even the most independent journalist cannot completely escape the pressures of the pack.”
One writer who habitually and ardently strayed from the pack was the famous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (Straight Arrow Books, 1973) bears almost no resemblance to the books by White or Cramer – or for that matter, volumes produced by anyone else on earth. Three sentences from this book speak mightily about the doomed candidacy of senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota, who lost 49 states – and speak just as mightily about our own sad time:
“For all his integrity, he is still talking to the Politics of the Past. He is still naive enough to assume that anybody who is honest & intelligent – with a good voting record on ‘the issues’ – is a natural man for the White House.”
Just as groundbreaking is The Selling of the President 1968 (Trident Press, 1969) by Joe McGinniss. This volume introduced America to Roger Ailes, the marketing genius who later would be the founding father of Fox News. He entered the scene as executive producer of the old Mike Douglas Show. Nixon met him in a holding room before a 1967 appearance on the program and said to him, "It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.'' Ailes shot back: “Television is not a gimmick.”
That campaign was conducted in the annus horribilis of 1968, when the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. One of those on the bus, Jules Witcover, produced 85 Days (Putnam, 1969), an account of the RFK campaign that, along with David Halberstam’s The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (Random House, 1969), provide a vivid portrait of one of the most important presidential campaigns of the 20th century.
If there seems to be an inordinate focus here on the campaigns between 1960 and 1972 it is because those dozen years constitute something of a Golden Age of political books, and because we still are living with the consequences of those campaigns. And one other factor: While this 12-year period may seem like the full flowering of American liberalism – a forthcoming book by John Roy Price, The Last Liberal Republican (University Press of Kansas, spring, 2021), will argue that Nixon was, in contrast to the conventional wisdom, a progressive – it also is when the seeds of modern conservatism were sown.
But great campaign reading isn’t confined to that golden era.
I’ve omitted books about the 2016 election because they are too recent to be tested by the passage of time – and by and large seem too raw, too angry and too partisan. But a discerning reader might learn a lot from Primary Colors (Random House, 1996), a fictionalized account of the 1992 presidential campaign of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, which was written by "Anonymous,'' who turned out to be the political writer Joe Klein.
The historically minded might be drawn to the important election of 1896, which V.O. Key in his landmark 1955 study of U.S. politics described as one of America’s "critical elections.'' That contest is handled deftly by Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s consigliere, in The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (Random House, 2016) and in Robert W. Merry’s President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and, from the other side, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf, 2006) by Michael Kazin. Then there is the splendid 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs – The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace (Simon and Schuster, 2004). This is one rare case where a subtitle isn’t an overstatement.
Three years ago I visited Spiegel Grove, the splendid Fremont, Ohio, home of Rutherford B. Hayes (president, 1877-1881). There, in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, I rummaged through the Hayes presidential library in an effort to understand one of the five American chief executives to win the popular vote but lose the presidency in the Electoral College. Hayes assembled a library of 8,000 books but one that provided me with the sharpest perspective was published a century after his campaign victory over governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York. It was The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (Praeger, 1972), by Kenneth E. Davison, and he described the 1872 campaign as being "without parallel in the history of American presidential elections.''
Perhaps only a person who, as a kid, imagined he heard campaign planes flying above and who dreamed he would one day cover American elections would pause there in a musty, seldom-visited and mostly forgotten presidential library in the centre of one of the great swing states in American politics.
But in a way I was returning to my youthful origins – experiencing presidential elections through books. You can, too. This month, with an election looming and the coronavirus still spreading, is a good time to start. Join me. The pages almost turn themselves, the years race by, the candidate slogans and the broadcast advertisements still holler, the stump speeches still echo, and an American presidential campaign still produces dreams in the night.
David Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, chronicled presidential campaigns for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe and has written a nationally syndicated column in the United States for more than 25 years. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of American political culture.
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