Political scientists and political journalists share one thing in common—a respect for a body of literature that can be described as a “canon.” These are different canons, to be sure. The one revered by journalists is, not surprisingly, produced mainly by journalists. But an observer of American political journalism can better understand the genre if he understands what journalists know and revere. Even if all political journalists have not read all of these volumes, they have been taught, or reprimanded, or mentored by journalists who have. The ideas in these books are embedded in the consciousness of every political journalist. They are as much a part of his tools as his notebook, his computer, and, of course, his cell phone.
“‘Only a Lunatic Would Do This Kind of Work’”
– David M. ShribmanThe first entry in this canon is Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1960.” For political reporters, it is the equivalent of “Beowulf,” the “Chancon de Roland,” “The Canterbury Tales,” “King Lear,” and the King James Version of the Bible—combined. Much imitated and much derided, it nonetheless survives, for conventional political correspondents at least, as the founding document of their craft …. Its emphasis on the small observation, on the daily details of campaign life, continue to this day. … At the heart of this technique was the notion that great truths about a candidate could be found by examining not only how his mind worked, not only how his campaign style worked, but also how the mechanics of his campaign worked. The logic is tenuous, but the dramatic appeal is undeniable …. The effect of the White book on political correspondents cannot be overemphasized. Suddenly news stories were full of insider stuff—so much so that these details (what the candidate wore off camera, whether there was cantaloupe or honeydew on the fruit plate) became standard, almost clichés ….
The bookend to the White volume might be Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72.” The Thompson book, perhaps the high point of “gonzo journalism,” portrayed the presidential election in all its insanity, in all its frenzy, in all its dehumanizing and preposterous excess. That, of course, was its appeal,
even to mainstream journalists who couldn’t have persuaded their editors to print even a single paragraph of reportage in the Thompson style even if they were capable of producing one. But Thompson also expresses the political reporters’ frustration … “Only a lunatic would do this kind of work: twenty-three primaries in five months; stone drunk from dawn till dusk and huge seed-blisters all over my head. Where is the meaning?” ….
The place of “Fear and Loathing” in the journalists’ pantheon illuminates another aspect of the political reporter’s character—his knowledge that, for all the earnestness he brings to bear on his written product or his television spot, the process of electing a president is itself a portrait in absurdity …. The Thompson book also underlines another aspect of modern political correspondence, the tendency of journalists to become marinated in the meaningless blather of the conventions of politics. These conventions include rhetorical offensives known popularly as “spin:” the overly cautious language of candidates whose thoughts and words are controlled by overly cautious handlers; the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the ordinary campaign day, and the effort to make a process that has become a mass-marketing exercise look and feel like a mom-and-pop retail operation. Campaigns were always manipulative; the whole point is to persuade people to perform something they might not otherwise be disposed to do. But in recent years, the level of manipulation has grown substantially while the entire process has become laced with cynicism ….
But political correspondents bear some measure of the blame. They perpetuate stereotypes that conform to their own romantic views of the story they are covering, writing, for example, of the public’s rabid interest in the political process when reports prepared by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate show a steep and alarming drop in voter participation. In this regard, most political journalists have sinned. They have written of communities seething with political passion, of huge masses of voters who immerse themselves in political literature, of spontaneous coffee shop debates about taxation or war. By and large this phenomenon does not exist.
A third element of the political canon is Timothy Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus: Riding with the Campaign Press Corps,” which reporters like in part because it is about them. In truth, the Crouse book elevated reporters from mere spectators in the political drama to full participants. In that regard, Crouse merely acknowledged the obvious, though he did so with style and depth. But he also helped contribute to the new image of news reporters—an image that would only be burnished by the Watergate scandal, which elevated news reporters into modern-day crusaders for all that is right and pure, or at least that is the way reporters see it ….
Crouse understood, too, the limits of the genre. In his book, he quotes a young assistant to Jack Anderson named Brit Hume, who would later win celebrity as a gritty ABC News White House reporter and now as managing editor and chief Washington correspondent of Fox News: “Those guys on the plane,” said Hume, “claim that they’re trying to be objective. They shouldn’t try to be objective, they should try to be honest. And they’re not being honest. Their so-called objectivity is just a guise for superficiality. They report what one candidate said, then they go and report what the other candidate said with equal credibility. They never get around to finding out if the guy is telling the truth. They just pass the speeches along without trying to confirm the substance of what the candidates are saying. What they pass off as objectivity is just a mindless kind of neutrality.” …
The cover of the accounts of the 1960 and 1964 elections, White’s “The Making of the President,” featured the seal of the President of the United States. The most memorable account of the next election was “The Selling of the President 1968,” by Joe McGinniss. On its cover was a pack of cigarettes with Richard M. Nixon’s face. Later books by Germond and Witcover had titles such as “Wake Us When It’s Over” and “Blue Smoke and Mirrors.” And, of course, the big book from the 1996 election was called “Showtime.” From “The Making of the President” to “Showtime” in one generation—the titles themselves are a portrait in the decline of politics.