Classic accounts of presidential races

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates set the standard for future presidential campaigns.
The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates set the standard for future presidential campaigns.

For insight into the presidential election of 2016, I can’t say I found anything exceptional among political books this year, with the exception of Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush. This was certainly true of the plethora of self-serving campaign memoirs.

Instead I’d recommend the two best books ever written about the campaign for the American presidency: The Making of the President: 1960 by Theodore White, the first and best of his series, and What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s portraits of the leading presidential aspirants in 1988.

White inaugurated the behind-the-scenes look at the dynamics of the race for the presidency, establishing the gold standard.

To the cynics, then and now, he offers a powerful antidote; choosing the American president “is the most awesome transfer of power in the world, the power to marshall and mobilize, the power to send men to kill or be killed, the power to tax and destroy, the power to create and the responsibility to so, the power to guide and the responsibility to heal — all committed into the hands of one man.”

While the book is chiefly about the epic race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy (and the Kennedy inner circle), it also provides insight into the nation’s changing economic, social and political fabric: suburbanization and the premium on credit, the ethnic and racial melting pots, and, of course, religion with the first Catholic president. There are marvelous depictions of the people and hamlets of West Virginia and Wisconsin.

White is much more taken with Kennedy, who is tough-minded, intelligent, charming, confident, maybe too confident. Unlike the Nixon forces that believed in the ebb and flow of politics, the Kennedy men — they were all men — went all out from the get-go. Kennedy was the better candidate, and he gave White much more access than did Nixon.

Yet White sympathetically captures Nixon’s problems with that powerful new medium, television. In the famous debates, White notes, “Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy — but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation.” That’s embedded in the current candidate culture.

White closes with an insight that transcends the year and the country: “At every time, in every place, those who understand their country’s problems best at home could exercise their country’s power best abroad, a rule that runs in time from Caesar to Clemenceau and in geography from Churchill to Mao Tze- tung.”

Richard Ben Cramer’s masterpiece, written three decades later, is much less about campaign strategies and consultants and more about the lives, experiences and psychology of the men (still all men) seeking the most powerful office. I especially love the portraits of Joe Biden and Bob Dole, so different yet with much in common.

Dole was a great legislator yet even the best of plans couldn’t have gotten him to the White House. Today, at age 92, he can get misty-eyed when talking about his roots in Russell, and he remains a leading champion for those with disabilities.

Joe Biden’s first challenge was a horrible stuttering problem. In a section called “Joey Biden, He Could Really Talk,” witness the humiliation this kid faced in school, trying to memorize passages so he wouldn’t have to read them aloud. Next time we call Biden undisciplined, remember this. You wonder if his verbosity is a product of how hard it was then.

Running for president is so much harder than most realize: physically, emotionally and, for many, financially. I’ve covered scores of candidates over the decades and can’t remember one who at some stage wasn’t despondent, wondering why in the hell did I do this?

What today’s presidential hopefuls say about Islamic terrorism or taxes or immigration matters. Success probably depends on fund-raising, good TV commercials and fashioning catchy short sound bites.

But, as another presidential candidate once wrote, ultimately character is destiny. Reading Teddy White and Richard Ben Cramer makes you worry whether the 2016 crop measures up on that scale.

© 2015, Bloomberg View