Of the taking of polls there is no end, particularly in a presidential election year. And while it’s considered the better part of wisdom to feign at least a healthy disregard, if not an active disdain, for the preponderance of polling, the truth is that political junkies couldn’t live without a steady dose of polls.
The more obnoxiously pretentious a pundit, the more likely he or she is to routinely decry the ubiquity of polls. The common lament from the smugly high-minded is that the media’s fascination with polls gives too much weight to the horse-race aspect of a campaign, at the expense of the important and weighty discussions of policy for which voters presumably hunger.
Too much weight to the horse race? What utter nonsense. Give us more of the horse race – please!
Imagine for a moment a presidential campaign bereft of polls and the horse-race atmosphere they so helpfully foster. The mind reels at such a dreadfully dreary prospect. And since the subject at hand is books, would anyone even pretend to read campaign accounts like Theodore White’s Making of the President series if they were simply compilations of stump speeches and position papers?
Richard Ben Cramer wrote what is arguably the best book ever on presidential politics, a thousand-page opus on the 1988 campaign called What It Takes: The Way to the White House (Random House, 1992) and it’s such a great read precisely because he knew better than to indulge in detailed analysis of tax plans and trade initiatives. (The book has remained remarkably fresh nearly 25 years after publication thanks to Cramer’s deftly detailed portraits of such late 20th-century political heavyweights as George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, and Joe Biden.)
All the books worth reading on presidential campaigns are heavy on the drama and blessedly light on the kind of stuff that keeps policy wonks up at night. The interest is in the narrative, the story line – the plot, if you will.
Sure, readers of the best campaign books come away possessing a not-insubstantial acquaintance with the candidates’ positions on at least some the major issues of the day, but the story is driven by the personalities, the gossip, the constant and obsessive polling by news organizations, and the campaigns themselves.
In other words, it all comes down to the much-maligned horse race.
In addition to Cramer’s What It Takes, the following are some other highly recommended books on presidential campaigns:
The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 Election by W.J. Rorabaugh (University Press of Kansas, 2009) – A much needed counter to Theodore White’s iconic The Making of the President 1960 (the first of White’s series of books on presidential campaigns). Rorabaugh convincingly shows how White got many important things wrong due mainly to his shameless worship of John Kennedy, which makes one wonder why White’s book is still held up as a classic by people who should know better.
1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon by David Pietrusza (Union Square Press, 2008) – Another corrective to the flaws in White’s work. Pietrusza, like Rorabaugh, wrote his book decades after the 1960 election, so he had a more expansive and dispassionate perspective than White, as well as access to information the Kennedys and their toadies worked long and hard to keep from the public.
An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page (Viking, 1969) – A finely textured account of the pivotal 1968 campaign by three distinguished British journalists – and far superior to Theodore White’s Making of the President 1968. Although some of the authors’ assumptions have aged badly (such as, for example, their thoroughly condescending view of then-California governor Ronald Reagan, who would be elected president twelve years later), their view for detail and their deeply reported narrative have stood the test of time.
American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael Cohen (Oxford University Press, 2016) – The fact that this is the newest book on the list and the book directly preceding it is the oldest should tell you something about what a seminal year in politics 1968 was and how the divisions that came to the fore during that presidential campaign resonate across the decades. Events came at a non-stop pace: the decision by a sitting president not to seek reelection; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the political resurrection of Richard Nixon; the sudden emergence of Ronald Reagan as a presidential possibility; the angry, racially charged campaign of Alabama governor George Wallace; and the rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In Cohen’s hands the story reads like a richly imagined novel.
The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by Patrick Buchanan (Crown Forum 2014) – Not a campaign book in the usual sense, this superbly written (one would expect nothing less from a veteran speechwriter, columnist, and author) behind-the-scenes story of Richard Nixon’s 1968 victory is a gold mine of insider anecdotes and information. The candid depictions – some biting, others moving – of prominent public figures of the day add to the appeal of one of the best political books you’ll ever read. And given that some of Buchanan’s views are widely perceived to be anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic, his poignant recounting of a visit he and then-private citizen Nixon made to Israel in June 1967, shortly after the conclusion of the Six-Day War, reveals a side to him that many readers will no doubt find surprising.
The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House, 1973) – There are several books that cover the 1972 presidential campaign, among them Hunter S. Thompson’s On the Campaign Trail 1972 (a compendium of the author’s trademark idiosyncratic and drug and alcohol-fueled reporting for Rolling Stone magazine); Bruce Miroff’s The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (a solid if somewhat wonkish account); and Theodore White’s Making of the President 1972. But if one had to recommend a single book about the 1972 race, that book would be Timothy Crouse’s no-holds-barred look at the newspaper, newsmagazine, and television network reporters (the “boys on the bus”) whose power and influence in the days before the Internet and social media cannot be overstated. By reporting on the journalists who covered the campaign, Crouse tells the story of the campaign itself.
Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976 by Jules Witcover (Viking, 1977) – Witcover’s occasionally plodding prose spread out over 700 pages notwithstanding, the book is as in-depth a report as one could ask for, with the longtime political journalist guiding readers through four of the most eventful years in the country’s history and the election that gave us (yikes) the Jimmy Carter presidency.
Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America by Craig Shirley (ISI Books, 2009) – The inside story of Ronald Reagan’s epic 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter, told by a historian and veteran political consultant whose earlier work, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All (Thomas Nelson, 2005) focused on Reagan’s nearly successful 1976 battle with incumbent president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Although it’s a fact that has been obscured with the passage of time and Reagan’s steadily ascending historical ranking, the election’s outcome, let alone its landslide proportions – 44 states and 489 electoral votes for Reagan, six states and 49 electoral votes for Carter – was far from a certainty through much of the campaign, which was actually a nail-biter for most of the year.
Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (Harper 2010) – Purists lamented the book’s all-out gossipy tone, but no one challenged its accuracy. Heilemann and Halperin seemingly got everyone of note in both the Obama and McCain campaigns to dish freely – and often far from flatteringly – on the candidates and their families. The chapters on then-senator John Edwards (whose campaign for the Democratic nomination disintegrated amid scandal and family tragedy) and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin are particularly devastating. The book was such a sensation that the authors were immediately paid a hefty sum for a book on the 2012 campaign. That book, Double Down: Game Change 2012 (The Penguin Press, 2013) has its moments and is a good read, especially for political junkies, but it isn’t nearly the eye-opener Heilemann and Halperin produced about the 2008 election.