Political classics to consider during this election season
by: John Stanton
“The Making of the President 1960” by Theodore White
Campaign strategists had been around since well before the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. But journalist Theodore White took what they did from behind the scenes and pulled it onto center stage.
His book was on the best-seller list for 40 weeks and won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1962.
“The Selling of the President 1968” by Joe McGinnis
The story goes that McGinnis was a 28-year-old reporter when he tried to get the campaign staff of Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey to give him access behind the scenes of the campaign. They said no. So he called the Nixon campaign, which for some reason told him he could tag along.
Just a few years after losing to Kennedy, Nixon’s handlers had learned how to market their candidate. McGinnis’ book is about image-making and market-driven campaigns. It was a scathing read when it came out. Even the most casual voter would probably expect nothing less today.
“Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” by Hunter S. Thompson
Nixon vs. McGovern. Hunter S. Thompson decided that political reporting was too clubby an atmosphere when he set out to cover the campaign for Rolling Stone magazine. He decided to say what he had to say, then get out of town, burning bridges behind him.
Thompson is gone, committing suicide in 2005, but the big wheel of politics rolls on. If he found 1972 to be a peek into the abyss, one can only wonder what he would write as he watched today’s politics embracing that abyss. What would he have made of our Twitter president?
“McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for. Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”
“It was like a scene from the final hours of the Roman Empire: Everywhere you looked, some prominent politician was degrading himself in public.”
Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72”
“The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse
Timothy Crouse’s book is almost a companion piece to
Thompson’s, with none of the LSD-tinged side trips. Crouse was a young reporter for Rolling Stone, a colleague of Thompson, who decided after just a few days on the press bus, that the more interesting story lay not with the campaign, but with the press covering it: R.W. “Johnny” Apple of The New York Times, David Broder, Robert Novak and of course Thompson himself. Crouse is said to have coined the phrase “pack journalism.”
If you prefer fiction, a story based on what-if history and a roman à clef make for good autumn reads. You might want to shut off the cable news that is always on in the background while you read them.
“The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth
What if Charles Lindbergh, American aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer, had won the 1940 presidential election against Franklin Delano Roosevelt? What would happen to America if hate and racism were inspired to grow, if people looked the other way when it did?
This alternative-history novel has been made into an HBO television series, but nothing will take the place of Roth at the height of his talent, telling you a story in the printed word. He tells the story through his own fictional eyes, his counterfeit family history playing out in his adult memory, as the Lindbergh Administration begins to persecute American Jews.
“Primary Colors” by Joe Klein
Sure, you could just see the movie. John Travolta as Arkansas Gov. Jack Stanton, Emma Thompson as his wife, both wonderful as Bill and Hillary Clinton in all their glory and mendacity as they campaign for president in 1992.
A screenplay by Elaine May and direction by Mike Nichols are enough to make me watch any film. Add in Kathy Bates as the only political operative in American history with a soul.
It was a Washington parlor game to try to figure out who “anonymous” was when this book first came out, since the book jacket gave that as the author. Klein, then a columnist for Newsweek magazine, later outed himself as the author.
He told NPR in 2018 that, “Every journalist thinks he or she has a great novel lurking somewhere inside them. Most of them – 99.9 percent – are wrong.” It will only take a weekend’s reading for you to judge whether Klein himself is in that 99.9 percent.