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On the literary campaign trail
A short list of top-drawer campaign books
(CNN) -- While they are happening, presidential campaign trails are exercises in drudgery. Years later, they may be limned with golden recollections, but not so during the dark present. The candidate's days are long, the nights, longer; the people, food, towns and airports blur as the trail to the White House becomes a long slog.
Meanwhile, the candidate cannot ignore those tiny voices echoing at every stop: Get out the vote. Answer your opponent. Win now, or else. The combination of draining days and stressful, high-wire maneuvering can make for some strange, flop-sweat moments.
It can also make for some great reading.
For the past 40 years, each presidential campaign has produced at least one book -- often, a great book. The best re-instill a long perspective that can get lost in the daily jackhammering of news reports; they also make the candidates three-dimensional after the image-flattening of handlers and 30-second advertisements. And good campaign books provide dollops of the petty infighting, backstage gossip and hand-to-hand politicking that make presidential campaigns seem like so much fun.
With Labor Day weekend at hand -- the traditional beginning of the presidential campaign's home stretch -- it's a good time to dip into the past and sample the best presidential campaign books. Here are five for the ages.
- "The Making of the President 1960" by Theodore H. White (1961). White's famous, blue-covered tome can be considered the father of the modern campaign book. The author, a one-time international reporter who had earned kudos for his 1946 work "Thunder Out of China," was given unprecedented access, particularly by the Kennedy clan, in covering the campaign. His recap of 1960's seminal events -- Kennedy's key win in the West Virginia primary; overcoming the issue of his Roman Catholicism; the back-and-forth bargaining that led to Lyndon Johnson being chosen as Kennedy's running mate; and the fishbowl of the Nixon-Kennedy debates -- remains as exciting, and instructive, today as it did when the book came out.
"The Making of the President 1960" won a Pulitzer Prize and led to a series of White campaign books, culminating in 1982's "America in Search of Itself." As other authors' campaign books followed, White was castigated for being too much of an establishment insider, not open enough to the New Journalism that gave succeeding books the flash and sparkle of a tightly wound thriller. But he did it well, and he did it first.
- "The Selling of the President 1968" by Joe McGinniss (1969). White put out a campaign book in 1968, and so did a group of three British authors, all attempting to somehow summarize a campaign -- and a year -- that defied easy summarization. But perhaps the book that tackled the 1968 campaign from the most revealing angle was McGinniss' study of political marketing. In a year that witnessed Eugene McCarthy's left-field insurgency, Lyndon Johnson's surprise withdrawal, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, perhaps what still lingers today is the cold calculation of Richard Nixon's advisers, hawking their candidate like a box of detergent. Their lessons on stage lighting, sound bites, backdrops -- all the theatrical trappings which are now as much a part of a political campaign as kissing babies -- were laconically recorded by the keenly observant McGinniss. As a result, "The Selling of the President 1968" can be seen as a presidential marketing bible -- or a cautionary tale.
- "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" by Hunter S. Thompson (1973). He may have been drunk, he may have been stoned, he may have sometimes spat out his sentences like an out-of-control teletype machine. But when it came to seeing through the mayhem and exhaustion of the Democratic primaries and the indefatigable, ominous hum of the Nixon machine, nobody did it better than the correspondent from Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson knew absurdity when he saw it, and he wasn't afraid of recording its every pratfall with his sharp-edged prose, perhaps prompting readers to wonder: this is a presidential campaign? Yes it is, boys and girls, complete with George McGovern supporting vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton "1000 percent" (Eagleton was dropped soon after because of admitted psychiatric treatments), Nixon Youth, and a mysterious drug named Ibogaine. Scary illustrations by Ralph Steadman.
- "The Boys on the Bus" by Timothy Crouse (1973). Crouse was Thompson's compatriot during the 1972 campaign, a Rolling Stone contributing editor who covered the press covering the campaign and tried to help (or hinder, depending on the situation) Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner keep Thompson in line. Crouse created indelible portraits of the press corps, from the Mutt-and-Jeff crabbiness of columnist team Rowland Evans and Robert Novak to the plain-speaking everyman of the Washington Post, David Broder. Meanwhile, the campaign swirled on around them all, bringing out the best and worst general perceptions the public has about journalists. Crouse was one of the first to look at the way the media pack mentality shapes press coverage, and perhaps the first to show how the media was becoming as important as the people it covered.
- "What It Takes: The Way to the White House" by Richard Ben Cramer (1992). If Cramer set out to produce the campaign book to end all campaign books, he succeeded -- and nearly killed himself in the process. His 1,047-page doorstop looked into every nook and cranny of the 1988 race, providing unforgettable profiles of George Bush, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, Joe Biden and particularly Bob Dole, whose third-person speaking style and tossed-off "Aghs" Cramer captured perfectly. (Dole should have handed out chapters of "What It Takes" during his '96 campaign; it's probably the most well-rounded and even sympathetic portrait that exists of the former senator and GOP nominee.) The book reads like Tom Wolfe on speed, like Teddy White left out in the wild, a ride of energy and fury absolutely determined to find out what drives a person to pursue the presidency -- and whether it's all worth it. Losing candidates may still wonder, and so, for that matter, may Cramer; but for readers, it's a virtual trip well worth taking.
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