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 big surprise is that, of these three books, the one that holds up best is The Boys on the Bus. As a rule, the press exists as a subject of interest mainly to the press, and into the bargain few of the reporters and columnists about whom Crouse writes remain well-known today, the principal exceptions being R. W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times, David Broder of the Washington Post and the syndicated columnist Robert Novak. You'd think that today's reader would find the book to be journalistic inside baseball and, furthermore, yesterday's news. The Boys on the Bus, however, stands the test of time for two reasons: Crouse's tart, witty prose and his sharp insights into journalism, a business that takes itself far too seriously and is deeply hostile to criticism or change.

That Crouse should have been the person to produce such a book could not have been predicted. He was only three years out of college and his family's roots were in the theater: his father was the prominent Broadway producer and writer Russell Crouse (Life With Father, Call Me Madam, The Sound of Music); his sister is the actress Lindsay Crouse. But Crouse headed for journalism rather than the stage, persuading editors at Rolling Stone—a publication then still young, irreverent and very smart—to let him write about the journalists covering the 1972 campaign. I was in my early 30s by then, my fascination with the inner workings of journalism and politics undimmed in the dozen years since Teddy White's book; I gobbled up Crouse's articles as they appeared. But it was when they were published as a book, tightly organized and fleshed out, that their real merit became clear.

Crouse—at the time in his mid-20s—had a precocious understanding of the press, especially the big-foot press on the plane with McGovern and, far less frequently, with Nixon, whose staff, knowing the election was a lock, had isolated the candidate in the Oval Office and the Rose Garden, and kept reporters as far away as possible. Crouse—as White had done before him—found himself spending far more time with the Democrats than with the Republicans. Like Kennedy, McGovern was far more accessible to reporters than Nixon, who believed, as Crouse put it, that "the press tortured him, lied about him, hated him."

The Boys on the Bus can still be read for its portraits of the men (and the very few women) in the political press corps, portraits that are deft and (mostly) sympathetic. Crouse, for example, summed up Jules Witcover, then of the Los Angeles Times, in a single sentence: "He had the pale, hounded look of a small liquor store owner whose shop has just been held up for the seventh time in a year." Crouse liked and respected Witcover—"he had always been better than the paper he worked for"—but that didn't prevent him from writing honestly about him.

Indeed, honesty is the rule throughout this book. One of the dirty little secrets of the news business is that journalists travel in packs, but it's no secret here. The men and women whom Crouse followed "all fed off the same pool report, the same daily handout, the same speech by the candidate; the whole pack was isolated in the same mobile village. After a while, they began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories." They "had a very limited usefulness as political observers, by and large, for what they knew best was not the American electorate but the tiny community of the press plane, a totally abnormal world that combined the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March."

They were in a pack even before they got on the plane: "All the national political reporters lived in Washington, saw the same people, used the same sources, belonged to the same background groups, and swore by the same omens. They arrived at their answers just as independently as a class of honest seventh graders using the same geometry text—they did not have to cheat off each other to come up with the same answers." No reader needs to be told that exactly the same words could be written by an observer of American journalism today, except that the words would have to be stronger. Not only are reporters and columnists happily isolated from American reality, they now swim in the journalistic celebrity pool, where prominence and wealth have far less to do with the actual quality of one's reportage or commentary than with the ability to get on the television gong shows, travel the lecture circuit and schmooze with other members of the celebritoisie at occasions such as the annual dinners of the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents' Association.

It is a pity that Crouse no longer covers prominent journalists, because they badly need a critic of his acuity. His first fling with journalism, however, seems to have been his last. In the 1980s he was co-author of a new script for one of his father's most successful shows, Anything Goes, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter; the revival ran for more than two years and presumably enabled Crouse to escape into early semi-retirement. He leaves us, though, with this absolutely terrific reportage, which continues to be required reading for any student of politics, the press and the internecine connections between the two.

Did The Boys on the Bus contribute to the suspicion and disdain in which the press is now so widely held? Not directly, would be my guess, but certainly indirectly: by describing so accurately and wittily certain truths about the press that its practitioners would just as soon not acknowledge, Crouse may have encouraged others to distort them into untruths. The pack journalism he so carefully delineates can be, and has been, distorted into conspiracy journalism by those who find the press a convenient whipping boy.

No one ever whipped it with more venom or gusto than Richard Nixon, which brings us to the Square One on which all three of these books were constructed. Teddy White tried, desperately and not very successfully, to give Nixon every benefit of the doubt; Joe McGinniss ridiculed him; Timothy Crouse mocked and reviled him. But their books could not have been written without him. They remind us that his legacy may be exceedingly ambiguous, even poisonous, but it is very large: a political system based on imagery rather than substance, a political class and a body politic that hold each other in mutual contempt, a press that labors under appallingly low public confidence. Yes, many others must share the blame for these lamentable developments in our public life, but Nixon gets a big share of it. The possibility that this would make him very happy cannot be denied.

Jonathan Yardley won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1981.


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