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What we should be reading: A presidential historian chooses the most revealing books about the American election process.

By Michael Beschloss
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page BW04

Today presidential campaigns are covered so intensively that it is difficult for any contemporary author to show them in fresh and surprising dimensions. Here, however, are four works published during the last half-century that come close to transforming the experience into art.

THE BEST MAN: A PLAY ABOUT POLITICS, by Gore Vidal (Little, Brown, 1960). Set at a Los Angeles political convention, Vidal's play pits the high-minded, promiscuous candidate Bill Russell (played by Henry Fonda in the 1964 movie) against the Nixonian operator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) in a cliffhanger that pivots on behind-the-scenes threats of blackmail over private secrets. The play benefits from Vidal's inside knowledge of the politics of the time and its players: His mother and Jacqueline Kennedy's mother had married the same man. In 1960, Vidal was -- before a notorious falling-out -- a semi-intimate of Jackie and Jack. He was also a Kennedy delegate at Los Angeles that year. Considering when it was staged, the play was especially sophisticated in its revelation of the intersections of public and private lives -- a subject Vidal understood intensely. (Running in 1960 for Congress from Dutchess County, N.Y., he had to deflect political enemies' attempts to out him as homosexual.) Two of Vidal's friends were unsettled by "The Best Man." As President-elect Kennedy watched the play in New York, he blinked nervously at the references to Russell's infidelities, which he (correctly) presumed to be based on his own. For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt was indignant when she saw the drama. "Private lives," she later lectured Vidal, "do not play an important part in political campaigns."

During the Democratic Convention in 1968, there were multiple protests, including this one in Grant Park, Chicago on August 30. (Ap)

THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT, 1960, by Theodore H. White (Atheneum, 1961). In the late 1950s, journalist White told his publishers that he wanted to do something unprecedented: write a novelistic account of a presidential contest from the inside. As White later wrote in a memoir, the publishers replied that they had made so much money on White's earlier books that they "owed" it to him to publish a book "on this dreary subject of a presidential campaign too. It would not sell, but it was their obligation." White wisely found new publishers. The resulting book became a bestseller, won a Pulitzer Prize and hugely influenced the way reporters have covered presidential politics ever since.

Part of White's success was his luck in choosing 1960, the campaign fought by the outsized personalities John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. More important was his novelist's instinct for pacing and language ("It was invisible, as always," the book begins. "They had begun to vote in the villages of New Hampshire, as they always do. . . .") and his understanding of internal campaign mechanics -- so much truer than much of the hackneyed political writing of the time.

White later emphatically regretted that his book had so changed the way presidential politics is covered. Thanks partly to this book, which transformed events often consigned to the civics textbook into gripping human drama, candidates now are routinely surrounded by so many hundreds of reporters, and campaigns are so overcovered that no one else can achieve what White did: show Americans who had watched a presidential race that they had seen only the tip of the iceberg. White wrote successor volumes on presidential elections through 1972, but none managed to generate the excitement of the first.

MIAMI AND THE SIEGE OF CHICAGO, by Norman Mailer (World, 1968). Mailer's political judgment is at best eccentric (see his 1969 campaign for New York mayor), but his political reportage can be brilliant. Here the novelist scrutinizes the 1968 conventions that nominated Richard Nixon in Jackie Gleason's Miami Beach and Hubert Humphrey in the first Mayor Daley's Chicago, amid bloody confrontations between police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. In this book, not long before Robert F. Kennedy's murder, Mailer badgered the New York senator so pugnaciously (during their first and only encounter) that RFK asked the writer why he did not support Eugene McCarthy instead: "He seems more like your sort of guy, Mr. Mailer." Of a Nixon press conference in Miami, Mailer writes that, after years of political struggle, the candidate had acquired the "attentive guarded look" of "an old con up before Parole Board" -- the "kind of gentleness which ex-drunkards attain after years in AA."

Presciently, Mailer saw in Ronald Reagan, who lost the nomination to Nixon that week, "a public manner which was so natural that his discrepancies appeared only slightly surrealistic." In Chicago, Humphrey "could not find sufficient pride in his liver to ask for divorce" from President Johnson, whose policy toward him was "torture." Humphrey "came to Chicago with no one to greet him at the airport except a handful of the faithful -- the Vice President's own property -- those men whose salary he paid, and they were not many." At the week's climax, "a great stillness rose up from the street through all the small noise of clubbing and cries, small sirens. . . . Look -- a boy was running through the park, and a cop was chasing. There he caught him on the back of the neck with his club! There!" It was "as if the military spine of a great liberal party had finally separated itself from the skin." For historians who wish for the presence of a world-class literary witness at crucial moments in history, Mailer in Miami and Chicago was heaven-sent.

WHAT IT TAKES: THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE, by Richard Ben Cramer (Random House, 1992). Here the journalist who later illuminated Joe DiMaggio's distressing dark side provides a more cheerful revelation of the inner lives of six 1988 presidential candidates -- George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt and Joe Biden -- "as empathetically as I could," writes the author, "from behind their eyes." Cramer's gift for replicating his subjects' inner voices and his unusual reporting techniques ("every section of this book has been read back to the candidate, or to a family member, or to [his] closest aides") produced a kindly, garrulous book in a time of cynicism about politicians' motives.

Cramer's six mini-biographies include sketches, for example, of Vice President Bush entertaining pols on Air Force Two: "He'd bring them up, order them drinks, and talk politics. . . . Or if he knew them better, it might be . . . fishing, boats, children, tennis. . . . (You play? Y'gotta come to the house, got a court there. Why'n'cha come next weekend? C'mon! Your son play? Doubles! It'll be fun! . . . )" We also see the disconsolate Bob Dole after his fatal New Hampshire primary defeat: "He couldn't sleep -- couldn't sleep at all, lay there all night, tried to lie still . . . until he couldn't try it anymore and it was five o'clock and there was no reason to lie in bed. That's when Dole came down to the lobby of the hotel and sat -- no one around, he just sat. . . . This was his time. And they took it away!"

The campaign Cramer describes was 16 years ago, but the cast in U.S. presidential politics is long-running enough that the book includes early appearances by figures who still loom large in 2004 -- not only Gephardt but political consultants Joe Trippi, Bob Shrum and John Sasso, and the 42-year-old son of the man elected president in 1988: "Junior was the Roman candle of the family, bright, hot, a sparkler. . . . He had all the old man's high spirits, but none of his taste for accommodation. . . . But he'd learned some control as he'd neared the age of forty. In fact, these days, control, discipline -- some of that old Bush medicine -- was what he was always teaching himself." Not bad. •

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author, most recently, of "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany."

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