The Magazine

Living Politics

The downward spiral, from Lubell to Witcover.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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Around the time Theodore H. White ended his Making of the President series, Jules Witcover emerged as his de facto successor. Witcover wrote big, sprawling books about the modern presidential campaign. By himself, he wrote three dealing with the 1968 presidential race--The Resurrection of Richard Nixon; 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy; and The Year the Dream Died--and one dealing with the 1976 election--Marathon. With Jack Germond he cowrote books about every presidential race between 1980 and 1992: Blue Smoke and Mirrors, Wake Us When It's Over, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? and Mad as Hell. His latest tome, last year's The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch, is a memoir of his time on the presidential campaign trail.

One virtue of Witcover's campaign coverage, as all this suggests, was his indefatigability. Another was his adroit reporting of the "inside baseball" of presidential campaigns. (One of his many scoops was that Harry Dent, southern coordinator for President Ford's election, played a major role in Ford winning the 1976 Republican nomination, largely by convincing Mississippi's GOP state party chairman, Clarke Reed, to back Ford over Reagan.) In fact, Witcover was in some ways better than White at getting the inside skinny, partly because he was a shrewder judge of character.

Even so, Witcover's series on the American presidential campaign not only doesn't stack up to White's, it also embodies how the whole genre has been corrupted. What happened to this once-great brand? The corruption has not been due to poor writing: Though Witcover's prose begets eyestrain and frequent trips to the bathroom, Walter Shapiro's and Joe Klein's induce chuckles and murmurs of appreciation. Nor has it been due to form. Campaign authors have resorted to most every form imaginable: Journalism-plus-fabulism (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson), the nonfiction novel (What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer), the fictional novel (Primary Colors by Klein), comedic nonfiction (Trail Fever by Michael Lewis and Smashmouth by Dana Milbank), popular history (The Last Campaign by Zachary Karabell), and even the postmodern memoir (Shapiro's One-Car Caravan).

No, the corruption of the modern presidential campaign book owes to the content. Campaign authors are in the grip of the Teddy White syndrome: Writing almost entirely about political elites--the candidates, their aides, state and local party workers, even the media. And what they don't write about, in depth or really at all, is a rather important actor in democratic elections: voters.

The irony is that, as Nicholas Lemann once pointed out, Teddy White in his Making of the President series always wrote a long chapter about the American electorate. Born in 1915, White grew up in Boston in a Jewish ghetto and became a correspondent in China during World War II and in Europe afterwards. White grasped that politics was about more than campaign strategies and tactics: "Politics are only sociology in action," he wrote in a fine epigram that appears in his book on the 1960 campaign. Voters cast ballots for candidates not simply in response to the campaigns, media, and national events; their votes are based also on occupational, religious, regional, class, ethnic, and, of course, racial considerations.

Though a commonplace today, pluralism does not loom large in the journalism and history books of the early 1960s. But it informed some of Whites's most insightful passages. Nowhere was this truer than his portrayal of the citizen-intellectual wing of the Democratic party in 1960. White recognized that, along with the disaffected South, college-educated liberals, whose ranks skyrocketed in the postwar period, were undermining the Roosevelt coalition. White referred to them as "that huge but still stable element of citizen participation, the heritage of the Stevenson years of leadership in the Democratic Party--for Stevenson changed the Democratic Party almost as much as did Franklin D. Roosevelt, by trumpeting to its services scores of thousands of emancipated middle-class Americans who fit into no neat category of occupations, traditions, or pressure blocs."