“The campaign book deserves to die, and it is doing its duty.”
So Garry Wills wrote in the Book Review in an essay on four books about the 2000 election. At the time, the genre did indeed seem exhausted. Elections were so thoroughly scripted for the media (television, especially) that post-mortems lacked any hint of revelation. The narrative verve and psychological depth in a classic like Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President 1960” depended, to a great extent, on behind-the-scenes reporting that, in the age of blanket, moment-by-moment coverage, had already been digested in real time. All that seemed left, at least to judge from the books Wills found so wanting, were shallowness, clichés, routine cynicism and showy, mock-Gonzo prose. How, then, to explain the resurgent popularity of campaign narratives today?
The 2008 election has spawned several best sellers, most recently “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Whatever its merits as journalism or history, the book has been a triumph of advance promotion. With an éclat of publicity, including a segment on “60 Minutes” and continuous appearances on other television and radio programs, the authors have selectively and strategically ladled out the saucy scooplets. There was, to begin with, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who helpfully publicized the book when he apologized after being quoted in its pages as saying that Barack Obama was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.” Next came lurid details of John Edwards’s crumbling marriage, followed by the drama engulfing Hillary Clinton, depicted in “Game Change” as being unable to control her husband. And, finally, there was John McCain, whose impulsively chosen running mate, Sarah Palin, rages and blames campaign aides for tossing her into the “lioness’s mouth” in the disastrous Katie Couric interview. These heavily publicized morsels, all part of the well-connected authors’ savvy rollout, helped keep “Game Change” atop the nonfiction best-seller list for seven weeks. But publicity alone doesn’t guarantee sales. One way or another the book itself must deliver. But, in this instance, deliver what, exactly? One recent morning, as I left a Manhattan diner clutching my copy, a woman excitedly told me: “Oh, I loved that book. It’s such a soap opera.” Or, as Hendrik Hertzberg observed in The New Yorker, “Game Change” is the first campaign book to read like an “airport potboiler.”
I must admit that I, too, had a hard time putting it down. It brought back memories of when my children were small and I made them watch the nightly news. I would sometimes forget to turn off the television until after the Hollywood tabloid show “Entertainment Tonight” came on. When I went to snap it off, the kids would wail, “But this is the interesting news.” Give Heilemann and Halperin credit. They know what the interesting news is in 2010. Their book is so relentlessly entertaining, in part, precisely because the authors operate so differently from White, rarely pausing between scooplets to examine political history, to provide broader contextual information about the country or even to weigh the nuances of the characters — the candidates and their aides — who dominate their story. Instead, as the title suggests, they approach a landmark election as a grueling sports competition, with the various players jousting and falling to the ground, and the narrative seems constructed to fit the 24/7 news flow that dominates so much political reporting today: the tidbits of news, gossip, recent polls and state-by-state odds doled out continuously on the Internet (Politico, RealClearPolitics.com, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com), not to mention the attitude-driven “reports” on cable TV (Fox News and MSNBC, as well as Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). The election offered this almost nonstop. It became habit-forming. And once the action, such as it is, switched over to the dreary sausage-making of policy debate, political addicts, me included, suffered withdrawal pangs. “Game Change” brilliantly fills the void.
But like the political blog posts and talk shows its approach parallels, it quickly fades from memory. After gorging on “Game Change,” I felt slightly ill, in need of fresh air. I lent the book to a friend, not caring if it was returned. I didn’t really want it on my bookshelf alongside classics like White’s, three books about the 1968 election — “An American Melodrama,” written by three British journalists; “85 Days,” Jules Witcover’s elegantly slim and sad volume about Robert F. Kennedy’s tragically short campaign; Joe McGinniss’s “Selling of the President” — and, for me, what is by all odds the last truly great campaign book, “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s enormously detailed narrative about the 1988 presidential candidates. (I have not included some other good campaign books, especially those that have been produced by the political team at Newsweek every four years since 1984.)
After reimmersing myself in these books, I realized what made reading “Game Change” so claustrophobic an experience. The fresh air I yearned for was, simply, the air of the country. The great campaign books are about more than back-room drama and tactical maneuver. They are about the communion of voters with candidates. In 2008 the stakes were historic. The election rode on the true winds of change. Yet “Game Change” has almost nothing important to say about this — largely because the authors seem so startlingly detached from the men and women who uproot their lives to run for president or to help others attain the prize. It isn’t the duty of election books to leave readers feeling uplifted. But we deserve to come away with a better sense of who the candidates, winners and losers alike, really are — as people, not just competitors. To understand them better is to learn something about America at a particular moment in its history.
The place to start is with White, who invented the genre in his report on the 1960 election (the other books in the series don’t hold up nearly as well). At the time, White was criticized for having lionized John F. Kennedy. But on a rereading, it is Kennedy’s defeated Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey who emerges as the most interesting and misunderstood figure. White includes a remarkable scene just before the West Virginia primary, which doomed Humphrey’s candidacy. The candidate is in a diner when a staff member bolts in to tell him he will lose his TV time if he doesn’t pay the local station immediately. Humphrey, no longer the happy warrior, shouts: “Pay it! I don’t care how, don’t come to me with that kind of story!” Then, White writes, “realizing that his crestfallen aide was, like himself, destitute, Hubert pulled out his checkbook at the breakfast table and said, ‘All right, I’ll pay for it myself,’ and scribbled a personal check of his own.” White adds: “Mrs. Humphrey watched him do so, with dark, sad eyes, and one had the feeling that the check was money from the family grocery fund — or the money earmarked to pay for the wedding of their daughter, who was to be married the week following the primary.” White’s empathy for Humphrey, outspent and outsmarted by a rich man who had “never known hunger,” is palpable.
The power of the scene derives not only from its candor but also from its placement within a superbly structured narrative. Even though the reader knows the outcome, there is tension throughout, beginning when Kennedy arrives at the family compound in Hyannis Port on election night. He watches the results on TV until 3:40 a.m., when it is still too close to call, then grabs a sandwich. He complains that there is no milk in the house, only beer, then goes to bed, unsure whether he has lost or won. Moments like this, so vivid and spontaneous, give White the room to expand his story and fit in, among other things, a useful 32-page primer on the history of American politics.
White was writing at a time when television was just becoming the medium through which most Americans experienced political campaigns, though in a limited way. Much of the action still took place off camera, which enabled a respected journalist like White to gain direct but unpublicized access to the candidates as well as to their families and members of their staffs, who spoke openly about their hopes and ambitions. That is no longer the case. The ubiquity of the camera and the microphone has created instead the ersatz theater of the tightly scripted campaign, with candidates kept on message and reporters kept at bay.
In fact, the change would come quite quickly. By 1968, the slick exteriors of campaigns, buffed by high-priced advertising, made it ever more difficult for journalists to penetrate the mysterious inner workings of elections. This mystery is the subject of “The Selling of the President.” McGinniss had the ingenious idea to slice off the part of politics that television hadn’t covered and probably couldn’t: the ad men and the role they played in the transformation of politics by the 60-second commercial. Since the Humphrey campaign denied McGinniss access to its advertising team, he covered Richard Nixon’s. It turned out for the best since it enabled McGinniss to introduce to the world a sophisticated ad man named Roger Ailes. The result is a book surprisingly free of the cynicism implied in its title. McGinniss instead conveys the excitement of discovery. His portrait of Nixon’s struggle to master the alien art of being likable is drawn with sympathetic humor: “He was afraid of television. He knew his soul was hard to find. Beyond that, he considered it a gimmick; its use in politics offended him. It had not been part of the game when he had learned to play, he could see no reason to bring it in now. He half-suspected it was an Eastern liberal trick: one more way to make him look silly. It offended his sense of dignity, one of the truest senses he had.”
It struck me, as I reread these older books, that they were all written before Watergate, at a time when many still considered politics an honorable, even noble, calling, populated by larger-than-life figures who inspired genuine affection even from journalists. It is plain to the reader that White and McGinniss both love politics. Of course, Heilemann and Halperin love politics too (Heilemann has written first-rate political essays in New York magazine, and Halperin, Time’s senior political analyst, invented The Note, an addictive e-mail dispatch that prefigured Politico). But in “Game Change” too many of the candidates and their aides come across as knaves or fools, with the exception of Obama and his team, and even these skilled players remain remote as people.
Again, the contrast with the 1968 election is striking. Jules Witcover was a member of the press posse that covered Robert Kennedy’s brief, belated and intense run for the Democratic nomination. Some journalists who covered “Bobby” became so enamored of him and his antiwar and pro-civil-rights positions that they began to question their own objectivity. A few even asked their editors to take them off the campaign bus. Witcover stayed aboard it without losing credibility; “85 Days” presents strong criticism of the candidate’s missteps and candidly reports on the internal rough-and-tumble, including an incident in which the organizer Dick Tuck physically attacked a reporter. At the same time, Witcover vividly captures Kennedy’s rare gift for touching so many voters, and shows what it was really like to be a reporter following a wild and ultimately tragic campaign trail. When his car inched through Los Angeles “the hands reached up and out — black and brown and white hands,” Witcover writes, “young and old, and faces upturned, some of them calling encouragement, others seeming to try to convey it with their looks of adoration, or simple gladness.” This short book has much to say not only about Kennedy but about the tumultuous mood of the country in the only recent election that possibly equaled the 2008 campaign in excitement and importance.
The 814 pages of “An American Melodrama,” written by three highly skilled journalists for The Times of London — Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page — offer a sweeping narrative of the 1968 election, along with a broad picture of the American political process (it even takes readers through the Max Weber modalities of power), and at the same time abound in scooplets as juicy as some of those in “Game Change.” In a particularly vivid scene, George Wallace momentarily forgets that his wife, Lurleen, has just died, and tries to dial their home in Montgomery. His hands start shaking and his face turns ashen when he realizes he no longer has anyone to tell about his day.
If empathy is what’s most glaringly absent from “Game Change,” “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s almost Freudian study of the lives and thoughts of the 1988 presidential candidates, is almost too indulgent toward its subjects. “I have tried to tell their stories in two ways — as fairly as I could from the outside,” Cramer writes, “and as empathetically as I could from behind their eyes. In doing so, I have tried not only to show them, but to show what our politics is like — what it feels like to run for president; what it requires from them; what it builds in them; what it strips, or rips, from them.” This approach turns out to be both original and revelatory.
The first time I read the book, in 1992, the depictions of Bob Dole and Richard Gephardt, both all-American archetypes, made the strongest impression on me. On a second reading, the pages on Gary Hart assume great force. When Cramer describes the implosion of Hart’s campaign over allegations of marital infidelities — including his dalliance aboard a boat called “Monkey Business” — the reader actually can imagine what Hart must have felt in those weeks when he was hounded by the media hordes.
As Cramer explores this episode, which preceded the salacious revelations in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings (and the Monica Lewinsky scandal), his ambivalence is clear, even if Hart had dared the media to find examples of his reputed womanizing.
Contrast this with “Game Change,” with its unapologetically lurid account of Edwards’s cruelty to his family, especially his wife, who was terminally ill with cancer.
So was Garry Wills correct, after all, about the demise of the modern campaign book? It seems unfair to place the entire burden of proof on “Game Change,” particularly since there have been two other important books about the 2008 election, “Renegade,” by Richard Wolffe, who covered the campaign for Newsweek, and “The Battle for America 2008,” by Dan Balz of The Washington Post and Haynes Johnson (formerly of The Post).
It was Obama himself who suggested to Wolffe that he try to write a White-style narrative, offering special access. Wolffe’s book provides a fine portrait of the candidate but is told almost entirely from inside the Obama campaign bubble, and it lacks the narrative tension and rich portrayal of rival candidates that are hallmarks of earlier political books. Like Heilemann and Halperin, Wolffe views the campaign as a great sporting contest. (Indeed, Chapter 6 is titled “Game Changer.”)
Overlap is perhaps inevitable in multiple books on an already overreported campaign. A few of the choice anecdotes in “Game Change” appeared earlier in “The Battle for America 2008.” Its authors, both respected, veteran Washington political correspondents, clearly lacked the public relations skills of the “Game Change” team, and so got less attention and smaller sales.
Their book, like Wolffe’s, more closely resembles the earlier classics. They feel slow-cooked and are based on reporting gleaned from living on campaign planes and talking to voters. And yet the turbocharged atmosphere of “Game Change” is perhaps what this particular moment calls for. Wills would have found evidence there to support his thesis that the campaign book genre has entered “not only its decline but its decadence.” But he might also concede that the book has breathed much new life into it, too.
More Articles in Books »A version of this article appeared in print on March 21, 2010, on page 14 of the Sunday Book Review.
Yesterday, I published a big essay on Vox in which I argued that the current variant of hyperpartisanship is breaking American democracy. Our political institutions are just not set up to handle two deeply polarized, highly competitive political parties. And the current partisan division — in which racial, cultural, and geographical identities all line up with partisan allegiances — is just deadly for democratic compromise, since it organizes politics around a set of national identity issues where compromise is impossible.
Moreover, because our national elections are so tightly contested, majority control is always in reach or in danger for both parties. This breeds a particularly nasty zero-sum type of politics, in which compromise becomes difficult to impossible: Why help the other party when your electoral success depends on their failure?
In my essay, I argued that one way to dissolve this destructive zero-sum trench warfare would be to move to a multiparty system by changing electoral laws, thus effectively ending the two-party system that has been a marked feature of American politics for our entire political history — a function of our single-member district, plurality-winner approach to elections.
But this raises an obvious question: If our system of elections is so bad, how did we survive as a highly functioning democracy for as long as we have?
The answer is that something is very different about this era American politics. We have a highly unusual pattern of partisan competition, a pattern we’ve never quite had to these extreme levels.
Nationally, the parties are roughly equally competitive, to a historically remarkable degree. But regionally, parties are mostly noncompetitive, also to a historically remarkable degree.
Putting today in broader historical context
Just how unusual is our current era in American politics? Let’s start with the below chart, which tracks the percentage of states that have voted for the same party for president for five consecutive elections, culminating with a particular election. (I only go back to the post-Civil War period, since the party system before the Civil War was different and more fluid.)
With the election of 2016, the share of states that had supported the same party for five consecutive presidential elections hit an all-time high of 74 percent. That broke the previous record of 66 percent, set in 2012, which broke the previous record of 62 percent in 2008. Which broke the previous 20th century record of 52 percent in 1948, when Harry Truman won what would have been FDR’s fifth term.
Before that, you’d have to go back to both the elections of 1888 and 1892, when 55 percent of states supported the same party for president for the fifth consecutive year, during the highly polarized Reconstruction era.
The 13 states that have voted for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 (the past five elections) include the familiar swing states: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Maybe one or two new states will come into play in 2020 (most likely Arizona and Georgia), but other states on this list are now moving out of two-party competitiveness.
Yet while most states are now effectively one-party states for five elections running, the last five elections have been among the most consistently close five elections in US history. You have to go back to the period 1876 to 1892 to find a similarly close series of five consecutive elections.
Again, this is something very unusual: consistently hyper-competitive national presidential elections.
Looking back on the history of American presidential elections, it’s remarkable how many landslides there have been, since it’s been so long since we’ve had one.
More than one-third (34 percent) of our national elections since 1868 have been decided by at least 10 points. Yet, we have now had eight straight elections (32 years) in a row without a 10-point margin of victory. This is the longest streak in presidential election history, beating the previous record of seven straight close elections from 1876 to 1900 (before Teddy Roosevelt’s 1904 landslide).
These are both unusual patterns — consistently noncompetitive states and consistently competitive national presidential elections.
Their juxtaposition is even more unusual.
One way to measure this unusual juxtaposition of closely contested national elections and landslide state-level elections is to subtract the national margin from the median state-level presidential margin. When the gap is wide, it reflects the fact that national elections are much closer than state-level elections.
Again, the current period stands out as unique. In 2016, the median state-level margin of victory was 16.25 points, whereas the national margin of victory (for Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote) was 2.1, for a record-setting difference of 14.15, eclipsing the previous record of 1896, a 13-point difference between the median state-level margin of 1896 and a national margin of victory (for William McKinley over William Jennings Bryan) of 4.3 points.
I measure the difference between the two margins, because landslide elections tend to produce landslide state-level results. The clear correlation between national and state-level margins is represented in the chart below.
But there are some patterns here.
First, let me direct your attention to the upper-right-hand quadrant, which houses the major landslide elections (more than 15-point margin). In all these years, the landslide generally sweeps the country, and very few states are close.
Then there is the lower-left-hand quadrant, in which elections are close at the national level, and states are generally competitive.
Note in the far lower-left corner lie the elections of 1960 and 1976, in which almost every state was two-party competitive, and the national margin was razor-close. It seems remarkable to remember that in the not-so distant past, there really was a time in which both parties competed almost everywhere in the country, as truly moderate broad national coalitions.
And then there are two clusters of elections in upper-left quadrant that stand out for their unusual nature — close at the national level, but not close at the state level. The past three elections (2008, 2012, and 2016) and the elections of 1896, 1900, and 1908.
This is not the common pattern in American politics.
Can we return to a more normal pattern?
The obvious question is: Will this unusual pattern continue?
After the 1896 to 1908 period, the pattern did break, and polarization subsequently began to decline.
Note that in 1912, a Republican coalition increasingly divided between its stalwart and progressive wings split, with progressive Teddy Roosevelt running as a third-party candidate to challenge incumbent Republican William Taft after Roosevelt failed to win over the Republican National Convention.
Certainly, there are some potential similarities. Now, as then, there is a growing faction within the Republican Party that is dissatisfied with the incumbent president, who they feel took their party away from them. Perhaps that faction will grow big enough to mount a TR-like kamikaze presidential challenge (I nominate Mitt Romney). This then could then destabilize the party system and initiate a scramble for new alignments, as happened in 1912.
But whereas the progressive movement of the early 20th century effectively cut across the two parties, there is no obvious analog today that effectively cross-cuts the two parties. Also note that the election of 1904 marked a tremendous landslide for Teddy Roosevelt, indicating more fluidity in the two-party system.
While it’s impossible to predict the future, one thing seems clear. The current pattern of the party system — both highly competitive at the national level, and highly uncompetitive at the state level, is very unusual.
A two-party system can work when both parties are moderate, centrist parties that appeal to the entire country. It can’t work when the parties are regional parties who appeal to very different parts of the country, which effectively divides politics along cultural and identity lines. That’s what’s happening now.
Maybe something will give, and American politics will get the major realignment our party system needs. But our political institutions right now make it very difficult. They are simply not set up to handle our current political divisions. And they are breaking under the strain.