News & Politics

Roads to the White House

Here are books that go behind the scenes to show the machinery, victories, and losses that still hold campaign lessons for today.

As White House wannabes pound the campaign trail, it’s again time for political junkies to honor the memory of Theodore H. White.

White’s The Making of the President 1960 remains the gold standard for campaign books. The veteran writer meshed you-are-there reporting with political history and polling data to provide a vivid retelling of John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon. White recast presidential elections as compelling dramas with intricate plots and interesting characters.

In his sequels about 1964, 1968, and 1972, White maintained a discussion of issues that echo in today’s presidential campaign: a frustrating war (Vietnam in those days), the civil-rights and women’s movements, and the courtship of conservative activists.

White’s books changed political journalism—thereby changing the nature of campaign books. Today’s reporters, weaned on White, seek the “inside story” from day one. From now until November 4, 2008, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and TV networks will provide a steady diet of campaign strategy, personality profiles, historical analogies, and political polling—maybe not with White’s sense of style but certainly in his spirit.

In the 24/7 media world, White-style books looking back on a concluded election are almost obsolete. Both Newsweek and Time published condensed narratives the week after President Bush’s reelection in 2004.

Still, campaign books offer many ways to understand 2008, and history has much to teach about how candidates cope with climbing the greasiest pole in American politics, the effort to win the White House.

In 1968, young newspaperman Joe McGinniss reworked White’s formula from inside Richard Nixon’s campaign. McGinniss hung out with the Republican advertising team to produce the classic The Selling of the President 1968.

With the kind of access that no frontrunning campaign would allow today, McGinniss wrote a fly-on-the-wall narrative as consultants plotted how to play up Nixon’s appeal to Middle America while shielding his dark side. McGinniss wrote that Nixon’s people weren’t building a president so much as “an Astrodome, where the wind would never blow, the temperature never rise or fall, and the ball never bounce erratically on the artificial grass.”

McGinniss describes how Nixon consultant Harry Treleaven got his start in politics by helping the congressional election of a New England transplant to Houston named George Herbert Walker Bush.

Another Nixon advertising aide was future Fox News executive Roger Ailes. McGinniss reports that Ailes met the candidate in 1967 while working as a producer for The Mike Douglas Show:

Nixon: “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.”

Ailes: “Television is not a gimmick.”

A still-fascinating snapshot of a changing media culture can be found in The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s account of reporters who covered Nixon’s landslide reelection over George McGovern in 1972. Although written in the era before personal computers, cable news, and BlackBerries, Crouse’s book illustrates the problems of “pack journalism” and the challenges of covering a political world to be forever transformed by Vietnam and Watergate. It also captures the competitive intensity of political reporters.

Crouse writes that by 1972 editors were sending off their correspondents “with rab id pep talks about the importance of sniffing out inside dope, getting background into the story, finding out what makes the campaign tick, and generally going beyond the old style of campaign reporting.”

The new approach to coverage had its critics—including Teddy White. In Crouse’s book, the Making of the President impresario complains of how candidates such as McGovern were living in a media-driven “goldfish bowl,” their every move captured by clicking cameramen and scribbling writers—“taking notes like mad, getting all the little details,” White said, adding: “Which I think I invented as a method of reporting and which I now sincerely regret.”

Nixon’s reelection in the year of Watergate also produced a more psychedelic interpretation, courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. A highlight is Thompson’s recounting of a discussion he had with Nixon about one of the few things they had in common, love of football.

Say this: No one has written about American politics quite like the gonzo journalist who riffs on politics and culture while imbibing copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Thompson writes of being “Stoned on the Zoo Plane” and pens a section titled “A Rambling, Manic/Depressive Screed in Triple-Focus on the Last Day of the Doomed McGovern Campaign.”

For several elections after 1972, Washington journalists Jules Witcover and Jack Germond tried to revive White’s formula. Their breezily written works are heavy on insider information—sugar highs for political junkies.

In Marathon, Witcover re-created Jimmy Carter’s come-from-nowhere victory in 1976. Witcover and fellow columnist Germond chronicled the next four elections, the titles reflecting their distaste for the modern mores of presidential campaigns. Blue Smoke and Mirrors described Ronald Reagan’s landslide win over Carter in 1980. Wake Us When It’s Over detailed his even bigger landslide reelection in ’84. In Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? it was the flag-waving victory of George H.W. Bush in 1988. Mad as Hell captured the political backlash that propelled Bill Clinton over Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.

Journalist Richard Ben Cramer used the 1988 election to write what may be the last great campaign book, What It Takes: The Way to the White House. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis probably won’t loom large in history, but Cramer’s meticulous reporting and mini-biographies of half a dozen candidates capture the psychological and physical demands of modern campaigning.

Cramer writes that he wanted to show “how people like us—with dreams and doubts, great talents and ordinary frailties—get to be people like them.” He largely succeeds, though it takes him more than 1,000 pages.

One of Cramer’s anecdotes concerns Bush’s visit to a Houston Astros baseball game and the displeasure of eldest son George W. Bush at being seated apart from his parents: “Junior was the Roman candle of the family, bright, hot, a sparkler—and likeliest to burn the fingers.”

In recent times, reporters have converted day-to-day reporting into books that pay homage to White but lean more to the offbeat approach of McGinniss and Thompson (without the drugs).

Veteran columnist Roger Simon weighed in with books about 1988 (Road Show), 1996 (Show Time), and 2000 (Divided We Stand). Simon believes the best way to look at a politician is down. Hence Road Show’s subtitle: In America Anyone Can Become President. It’s One of the Risks We Take.

In Michael Lewis’s Trail Fever: Spin Doctors, Rented Strangers, Thumb Wrestlers, Toe Suckers, Grizzly Bears, and Other Creatures on the Road to the White House, the author approaches the 1996 election “from the bottom of the political food chain,” including a profile of unknown Republican candidate Morry Taylor.

One of the best campaign books in recent years, Primary Colors, is fiction. The author, “Anonymous”—later unmasked as journalist Joe Klein—caught the Zeitgeist of the Clinton years through the antics of candidate Jack Stanton, a thinly veiled Southern governor with big appetites and political skills.

The book also captures the booze- and caffeine-fueled anxieties of a presidential campaign. While the speeches and rallies are in public, “the rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest.”

While fewer contemporary campaign books are being written, there seems to be a rise in looks at long-ago races—many of which mirror today’s. These books try to prove the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson unseated incumbent John Adams in the election that introduced heavy-duty partisan politics—and vitriol—to the American public. Those who chafe at the length of today’s campaigns should note that Jefferson began planning his run not long after losing the 1796 vote to Adams.

The 1800 rematch forged the two-party system and proved that one side could cede power to the other peacefully—no sure bet during a campaign in which the intensity matched that of today’s mudslinging.

A pro-Adams newspaper said Jefferson’s election would mean that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” Jefferson’s people accused Adams of wanting to reestablish the monarchy.

Jefferson’s victory also had postelection drama. In the days when elections made no distinction between presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Jefferson and running mate Aaron Burr pulled the same number of electoral votes. The election went to the House of Representatives, where Burr maneuvered for the top job; he fell short after Alexander Hamilton urged his allies to back the hated Jefferson.

That election’s impact on the nation’s future is vividly recounted in two recent books, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling and Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn.

Last month, Edward J. Larson came out with A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. Larson won a Pulitzer Prize for Summer for the Gods, a recounting of the Scopes “monkey trial.”

The post–Civil War period produced the nation’s most disputed election—at least until Bush’s victory in 2000. Roy Morris Jr. tells of how Rutherford B. Hayes prevailed over Samuel Tilden by a single electoral vote, thanks to a special commission that awarded 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes. Morris’s view is captured in Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876.

Angry Democrats had threatened to block Hayes’s inauguration in 1877, but Republicans essentially bought them off by promising to end Reconstruction in the South. That they did, delaying the promise of equal rights for decades.

James Chace’s excellent account of the race that put Woodrow Wilson in the White House—1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election That Changed the Country—also describes how the progressive Theodore Roosevelt broke from the more conservative William Howard Taft. That Republican rift echoes to this day.

The same conservative/moderate battle would be replayed with Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford in 1976, and George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000. Expect conservative attacks this year on McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney—yet another GOP battle for the “soul of the party.”

GOP infighting produced the last down-to-the-wire nomination battle in 1976, when accidental president Gerald Ford beat back Ronald Reagan’s conservative challenge, a battle ably chronicled by Craig Shirley in Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. Shirley shows how the Gipper’s challenge set the stage for the ex-actor’s takeover of the party four years later.

And what was the best campaign of all? Here’s a nomination for 1948, the year incumbent Harry Truman whistle-stopped his way past heavily favored Thomas Dewey.

In The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, Zachary Karabell points out that voters in 1948 had a full range of choices: the center-left with Truman, the center-right with Dewey, the far left with Henry Wallace, and the far right with Strom Thurmond.

Karabell says this was the last campaign not influenced by TV. The tube would quickly take command of American politics, playing a pivotal role by the time of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates—the campaign that also gave the political world Theodore H. White.