Sharp Pencils Shape Elections

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

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1960 © Ted Spiegel/CORBIS

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.

He believed, somewhat naively, that "if the conventions have done their work well, as normally they do, then the American people are offered two men of exceptional ability," but even as early as 1960 he was able to set sentiment aside long enough to peer into the future. He understood that the rise of the primaries was changing everything—"Conventions are now less bluntly controlled by bosses, and more sharply controlled by techniques and forces set in motion outside the convention city itself." White perceived, too, that "the intrusion of television on the convention" meant that "under the discipline of the camera, conventions are held more tightly to schedule, their times adjusted for maximum viewing opportunities, their procedure streamlined, not for the convenience or entertainment of the delegates, but for the convenience of the nation" and, it goes without saying, the convenience of television.

White understood that television was changing everything, and wrote vividly about the precedent-setting 1960 televised presidential debates, but he only dimly perceived what Joe McGinniss came along eight years later to make plain: that television now ran the show. McGinniss, a young journalist working out of Philadelphia and blessed, apparently, with an abundance of charm, insinuated his way into the inner circle of Richard Nixon's media campaign, particularly those working on his advertising strategy and his carefully staged television appearances before handpicked, sympathetic audiences. He was allowed to sit in on nearly all of their meetings, traveled with them, and engaged in long, casual conversations on an ongoing basis. Whether any of them had an inkling of what lay in store for them remains unknown, but the book that resulted left no doubt that Nixon was in the hand of a small group of (mostly) amiable, cynical, hard-boiled Svengalis.

The "grumpy, cold, and aloof" Nixon, as McGinnis described him, was a public-relations nightmare, but by dint of determination and ceaseless hard work he'd recovered from his double humiliation—by Kennedy in 1960 and by Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in the 1962 California governor's race—and walked away with the 1968 Republican nomination. He commenced the fall campaign with a huge advantage handed him by the Democrats, whose riot-torn convention in Chicago was a disaster and whose nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was held in contempt by much of the party's rank and file. Nixon's handlers were resolved not to let him fritter away his lead by reverting to the humorless, graceless, calculating "Old Nixon" detested by many voters, and concentrated on projecting an image of a "New Nixon" who was, above all else, "warm."

"I am not going to barricade myself into a television studio and make this an antiseptic campaign," Nixon promised as the campaign began, but it became clear almost immediately that this was precisely what he was going to do. Psychologically, Nixon was fragile, combustible goods. His staff remembered all too well how he had flown off the handle after losing to Pat Brown, bitterly informing the press that "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." They were apprehensive about putting him in situations where he could not be reined in, where instead of exuding warmth he would come across as white hot. The goal, one of his advisers wrote, was "pinpointing those controlled uses of the television medium that can best convey the image we want to get across." This is how McGinniss puts it:

"So this was how they went into it. Trying, with one hand, to build the illusion that Richard Nixon, in addition to his attributes of mind and heart, considered, in the words of Patrick K. Buchanan, a speech writer, ‘communicating with the of the great joys of seeking the Presidency'; while with the other they shielded him, controlled him, and controlled the atmosphere around him. It was as if they were building not a President but 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' disclosures about the artificiality of the Nixonian image that his handlers presented to the electorate surprised many readers and shocked some, but they really didn't come as news. As McGinniss himself readily acknowledged, the marriage of politicians and advertising had been consummated years before—certainly by 1956, when New York City's venerable advertising agency, Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, took on Dwight Eisenhower as a regular account—as was confirmed by Ike's Republican national chairman, Leonard Hall, who said unapologetically: "You sell your candidates and your programs the way a business sells its products."

No, what I think really appalled readers—especially, needless to say, those predisposed against Nixon—was what McGinniss revealed about the cynicism of the candidate and his staff toward the electorate and, even more startling, the cynicism of the staff toward the candidate. Jim Sage, one of Nixon's filmmakers, told McGinniss: "We didn't have to make cheap and vulgar films....But those images strike a note of recognition in the kind of people to whom we are trying to appeal....Nixon has not only developed the use of the platitude, he's raised it to an art form. It's mashed potatoes. It appeals to the lowest common denominator of American taste." Kevin Phillips, today a political pundit but then a 27-year-old Nixon staffer, struck a similar note, describing spots that featured John Wayne: "Wayne might sound bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks we're trying to reach through John Wayne. The people down there along the Yahoo Belt."

As for how the staff regarded the candidate, Roger Ailes, who supervised the staged question-and-answer television shows (and who now runs Fox News), positively (and hilariously) dripped with contempt. "Let's face it," he said in one staff meeting, "a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he's a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was forty-two years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it....Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.' I mean this is how he strikes some people. That's why these shows are important. To make them forget all that."

If there was a bombshell in The Selling of the President 1968, this was it. To be sure, McGinniss didn't shock enough voters to prevent Nixon from steamrolling McGovern four years later. Nevertheless, what he had to say about the campaign's scorn for the people whose votes it sought surely opened some eyes. There is no way to calibrate such matters, but I suspect that this may have contributed significantly to the cynicism that voters themselves now express about political candidates—wariness that subsequently was fed by such films as The Candidate, All the President's Men, The War Room, Wag the Dog, Bulworth and Primary Colors. If The Selling of the President 1968 was not the crucial element in the evolution of public cynicism about politics, it certainly played a catalytic role.

This surely helps explain why the book remains in print today, for the truth is that otherwise it doesn't hold up very well. McGinniss has a keen ear and the book is full of wonderful quotes, but it's surprisingly thin—a mere 168 pages of large-type text padded out with another 83 pages of appendices—and shallow as well. With its shock value long since dissipated, The Selling of the President turns out to be less thoughtful than I had recalled. McGinniss learned a lot of interesting things, but he really did not have much to say about them.

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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