The making of the president’s press corps

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1960,” a behind-the-scenes campaign narrative that redefined American political journalism. White’s story set the dramatic race that culminated in John F. Kennedy’s slim victory over Richard M. Nixon firmly alongside the country’s culture, values and history to give America an understanding of herself.

To develop the suspense that characterized his account and reveal the ambition of the contenders who sought the presidency, White used the abundant details he had accumulated over months of direct observation of the candidates. In those simpler times, when White followed a presidential hopeful on the often lonely quest for votes in a primary election, he was sometimes the only reporter around.

His book won a Pulitzer Prize, eventually sold more than 4 million copies and led directly to the ceaseless scrutiny now facing the 14 declared candidates for the Republican presidential nomination a half-century later. The success flabbergasted him, since White had repeatedly entertained doubts about his first book. And the type of campaign reporting he helped create came to dismay him.

By the 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign, White acknowledged that his preoccupation with character and strategy had given birth to quadrennial media frenzies in which presidential politics became a game. He rued the atmosphere of endless critical media attention in which candidates were forced to function, and he took part of the blame.

“It’s appalling what we’ve done,” White told reporter and writer Timothy Crouse during the 1972 campaign. As he watched the parade of reporters file in and out of George McGovern’s hotel room after he won the Democratic presidential nomination, White said: “All of us are observing him, taking notes like mad, getting all the little details. Which I think I invented as a method of reporting and which I now sincerely regret. If you write about this, say that I sincerely regret it,” he told Crouse, who was gathering material for a book that would become a critique of pack journalism, “The Boys on the Bus.”

Who cares, White asked, “if the guy had milk and Total for breakfast?”

The foundation of White’s work, however, was not biographical detail for its own sake. He revered America’s democratic process. As a student of Roman history and a witness, as Time’s correspondent, to the communist revolution in China after World War II, White perceived majesty in the U.S. political system. Power in other societies resided in tyrants; in America, it belonged to the people. For White, a presidential election was the highest embodiment of that power.

In one of his early musings about his decision “to write [about] public affairs — but differently,” White marveled in January 1960 at how the men who dreamed of sleeping in the White House a year hence would not be killed for having made a reach for power, as was the case in totalitarian societies, because “in our country you have one of the most subtle, puzzling, sophisticated political processes of choice of leadership the world has ever seen.”

In his view, running for office — especially the presidency — was a public service. He lionized the candidates, glorified the office and seemed certain that it ennobled and enlarged those who occupied it.

He recognized that striving for such lofty themes in a book recapping the race was a challenge. “This is a hell of a bad gamble,” he mused early in the 1960 campaign. “When I talk the book out it sounds good, yet when I am alone it frightens me.” And indeed, three publishersrejected the book.

But readers were captivated by the civics lesson masquerading as an ad­ven­ture story, and White became, in Walter Isaacson’s words, “the godfather of modern political reporting.” In ensuing campaigns, he was besieged by competitors who imitated his formula, sometimes in ways that outshone his own books about the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1980 contests. He found reporters assigned to those campaigns foraging deeper and deeper for the same details that had so enriched his first narrative.

Through his up-close observations of the contenders and their strategies, White discerned a candidate’s character, which he believed revealed an individual’s capacity for leadership. In his exploration of strategy, for example, White celebrated the steely, cool efficiency with which Kennedy’s team beat back a last-minute surge at the 1960 Democratic National Convention by backers of Adlai Stevenson, the darling of Midwest liberals and twice-defeated Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956. In White’s telling, a few dozen shrewd, calculating, middle-aged men led by Robert Kennedy engineered the first ballot victory that gave John F. Kennedy the nomination. To pull it off, they used skills honed during World War II, upending the old order to transform American politics.

Character, White concluded, was tied to the traits his generation brought to winning the war — courage, valor and selflessness. Kennedy’s swift decision to telephone Coretta Scott King after her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested in Atlanta during a lunch-counter sit-in and sentenced to four months’ hard labor at Georgia’s state penitentiary, for example, was not a news brief but an indication of his character. Kennedy, according to White, had been moved by impulse rather than calculation.

White never thought that a candidate’s sex life had much to do with leadership skills. Given the chance, his successors might pick the lock on a candidate’s bedroom door, but White wanted to get backstage to show the mechanics of a campaign.

Even the revelations of Kennedy’s sexual escapades during a 1975 congressional investigation did not shake White’s belief that JFK’s presidency qualified for greatness. Kennedy, the politician, “exuded that musk odor of power which acts like an aphrodisiac,” he wrote. It came with “the noise, the shrieking, the excitement of crowds.”

The acceptance of casual partners was a part of politicians’ lives, White wrote in his memoir. Among the scores of politicians he knew, he said he was reasonably certain that only three — Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter — “had denied themselves the pleasures” of extramarital liaisons.

That focus on character became White’s legacy to American politics. But in the hands of his successors, his observational acuitymoved toward a brand of self-serving voyeurism.

The debasement probably began with an Associated Press editor who reputedly admonished reporters covering a subsequent presidential campaign: “I don’t want to read about anything new in Teddy White’s book.”

And so the scavenger hunt for the telling snippet was on. But without the larger context into which White placed those details, the ones his imitators presented were meaningless. Inevitably, perhaps, that scavenger hunt became a hunger for “the gotcha moment.”

Carter’s confession to a Playboy interviewer — that his lustful looks at “a lot of women” meant he had “committed adultery in my heart many times” — became the stuff of breathless headlines for a day or two during the 1976 campaign.

Michael Dukakis, on the other hand, never recovered from the drubbing he endured during the 1988 presidential contest after a choreographed photo-op backfired. The image of a helmeted Dukakis in an M1 tank, rather than putting to rest suggestions that he was soft on defense, was mercilessly mocked by the media and used in a campaign ad for his opponent, George H.W. Bush.

Al Gore discovered during the 2000 campaign that his exasperated sighs echoed far louder than his words in the coverage of the first debate with George W. Bush. Similarly, news editors found an irresistible moment in Howard Dean’s unseemly “yeeahhh” scream after his loss in Iowa’s caucuses in 2004. The sound bite soon mortally wounded his campaign.

After nearly 50 years, the apotheosis of White’s invention arrived in a book about the 2008 presidential race — a race no less transformational than the 1960 campaign. Yet, “Game Change,” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s narrative of what their subtitle calls “the race of a lifetime,” is devoid of the rich context that White used to frame the Kennedy-Nixon campaign.

It is, instead, a compilation of gotchamoments drawn from the authors’ conversations with 300 campaign sources, far too many of whom remain anonymous. In similar fashion, the chattering classes spotlighted a single anecdote in the book, Sen. Harry Reid’s comments about how the country was ready for a light-skinned African American who spoke “with no Negro dialect,” as a representation of the whole.

For a book to transcend the commonplace and achieve greatness, White once explained to a friend, it needs more than fine language and keen insights.

“A book, to be a great book, must have a unity, a sweeping context and the dramatic unfolding from a single central theme,” he said, “so that the reader comes away from the book as if he had participated himself in the development of a wonder.”

For White, that central theme in “The Making of the President 1960” was built around his reverence for democracy and his amazement at America’s peaceful transfer of power. Without that overarching premise, it’s just about a candidate having milk and Total for breakfast.

Joyce Hoffmann, who teaches journalism at Old Dominion University, is the author of “Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion.”

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