Sharp Pencils Shape Elections

How three pioneering reporters reshaped the way the press covers elections-and politics itself

John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1960 (© Ted Spiegel/CORBIS)
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The 1960s and early '70s were among the most tumultuous periods in American politics—assassinations, riots, the conservative uprising, Watergate—but also among the most interesting journalistically. During this period three of the most influential political books of the postwar years were published, books that permanently altered the way we understand elections, the people who run them and those who report them.

All three were national bestsellers, devoured not only by political professionals but by ordinary voters: The Making of the President 1960, by Theodore H. White; The Selling of the President 1968, by Joe McGinniss; and The Boys on the Bus, by Timothy Crouse. They were published in 1961, 1969 and 1973, respectively. Interestingly, and oddly, the most important of the three—The Making of the President 1960—is the only one no longer in print, but its pervasive influence remains undiminished. Yes, influence: sales of books in this country are minuscule by comparison with sales of popular music or the audiences drawn by television and movies, but the effect of these books unquestionably was substantial and remains so to this day.

No one has assessed White's book and its influence more astutely than Timothy Crouse. In 1960, he writes in The Boys on the Bus, "campaign coverage had changed very little from what it had been in the 1920s." Most Americans still got their news from reading the papers, where, Crouse tells us, most reporting "remained superficial, formulaic, and dull." Then White, a journalist and novelist of wide experience if modest reputation, spent the election year bird-dogging Kennedy and Nixon, and with extraordinary speed produced his long, exhaustive account of the campaign, described on the front of its dust jacket as "A narrative history of American politics in action." Crouse writes:

"The book struck most readers as a total revelation—it was as if they had never before read anything, anywhere, that told them what a political campaign was about. They had some idea that a campaign consisted of a series of arcane deals and dull speeches, and suddenly White came along with a book that laid out the campaign as a wide-screen thriller with full-blooded heroes and white-knuckle suspense on every page. The book hit the number-one spot on the best-seller lists six weeks after publication and stayed there for exactly a year."

As it happens, I was beginning my own career in journalism just as White's book appeared, and I vividly recall the excitement it inspired. Crouse is right: this was something totally, absolutely new. Nobody ever had done anything remotely like it. White's prose could be muddy (it seems even muddier today), his hero-worship of Kennedy was cloying and his sunny paeans to the American political system overlooked or minimized its many shortcomings, but the book had more than the drama cited by Crouse: it took readers inside politics as they'd never been before. It both demystified the process and romanticized it. Few Americans then understood how primaries worked—indeed by White's account, few even knew what they were—and few were aware that political campaigns have an inherent narrative structure and rhythm; White taught them all that.

Granted far more access to Kennedy than to Nixon, he soon became infatuated with JFK's style and intelligence. On many occasions, White had Kennedy almost entirely to himself, aboard the Kennedy plane or in hotel rooms, and the two men talked in ways that are unthinkable now, when hundreds of reporters clamor for the candidates' attention. Kennedy had White in the palm of his hand: "It was the range, the extent, the depth and detail, of information and observation that dazzled, then overwhelmed, the listener." Passages such as that—the book has a number of them—doubtless explain why it was to White that Jacqueline Kennedy turned for the first interview she granted after her husband's assassination in 1963. She told White (and the millions who eventually read his article for Life magazine) about her husband's fondness for the title song from Camelot, a disclosure that played right into White's predisposition to romanticize Kennedy.

The most lasting effect of White's book, though, isn't the Kennedy myth—for better or worse, it's been thoroughly punctured by now, leaving one to wonder what, if anything, White knew and didn't disclose about JFK's amatory adventures—but the radical changes it inspired in political coverage. First of all, as Crouse reports, "imitations and spinoffs" began to appear after the 1964 election, much to White's dismay. Four years later, "White was competing against seventeen other campaign books," with the result that none of his subsequent Making books generated the sales or the influence of the first, though they continued to sell respectably, despite a steady decline in quality.

By 1972, when Crouse set off to cover the press covering the race between Nixon and George McGovern, most editors, he writes, "were sending off their men with rabid 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." Nobody wanted to be scooped by White again. On the whole, this was a good thing, but it occurred in parallel with two more troubling developments: the rise of the "new" journalism, which valued first-person reportage, often to the extent of putting the reporter at the center of the story, and the rise of the entertainment culture, which reduced everything in public life to its power to amuse, thus rendering political campaigns even more devoid of real issues than even the image-driven 1960 campaign had been.

None of this is Teddy White's fault, and no doubt he would be horrified by the present state of political reportage, which too often treats candidates and members of their entourages as celebrities, but there is no question that he got the process started. Before he came along, there had been dramatic presidential races—after all, it was only a dozen years before 1960 that Harry S. Truman had won his cliffhanger victory over Thomas E. Dewey. White, however, conditioned people to expect drama and personality in politics: the press, now expanded exponentially by the ladies and gentlemen of television, was eager to deliver what people wanted.

One arena where drama and personality are rarely encountered any longer is the political convention. White absolutely adored conventions, as did most other journalists of his day, and believed that they "epitomize the mythology and legendry of American national politics." In 1956, not long after he'd begun writing about American politics, following years of reporting from abroad, he had been on hand for that "wild night, at the Democratic Convention [in Chicago], as John F. Kennedy and Estes Kefauver contended for the delegates' mandate for the Vice-Presidency." Thereafter, he seemed to expect every convention to reach that same fever pitch. But with the exception of 1964 in San Francisco, when Republican conservatives vilified and humiliated Nelson Rockefeller, he never again got what he hoped for.


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