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Thursday, October 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Presidential races bring out the best in premier authors

By J. Patrick Coolican
Seattle Times staff reporter

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A few weeks before the 2000 Iowa caucus, I followed Sen. Orrin Hatch to a campaign event at a middle school, which produced a Webcast of him speaking that was fed to other middle schools.

One had to wonder if Hatch was setting up a run for 2008, given that his audience wouldn't be able to vote until then. After that, he got into the passenger seat of a rented Buick, fueled by the delusions of a man who thinks getting some C-SPAN face time means he can lead a nation.

On the other side of the state, after an untrustworthy pork chop at a roadside gas station, I saw then-Gov. George W. Bush speak at the Iowa Farm Bureau, one of the capitals of the agribusiness universe. Watching Bush for the first time, examining his entourage, feeling the energy of his "base," listening to his largely incoherent but very effective stump speech, it was impossible to ignore the feeling that this man would be a very distinct president.

The two experiences would have been two-dimensional events, politicians making speeches — except that the scenes were framed for me, a lifer political junkie, by all the great campaign journalism of the past 40 years, some of which is reviewed here.

Since 1960, some of our finest writers have joined the campaign trail. One suspects many did so grudgingly at first, lured only by a big advance from one of the leading magazines. But the intoxication of a race, the feeling that one can't know America without seeing up close how we choose a president, fills their writing with the great momentum of a campaign itself. Many of them have come back for more. And like musicians playing distinct genres, their techniques are different, but they all play great sounds.

A novelist's method, a reporter's eye

Norman Mailer shows little interest in meeting candidates or even delegates. In "Some Honorable Men," he covers the conventions from 1960 to 1972 by applying the methods of a novelist — albeit a very self-indulgent one — to the task.

So rather than following a candidate on his press bus, he begins his essay on the 1968 Democratic convention with a description of the Chicago stockyards:

"... accompanied by those same massive low sheds larger than armories, with pens for tens of thousands of frantic beasts, cattle, sheep, and pigs, animals in an orgy of gorging and dropping and waiting and smelling blood. In the slaughterhouses, during the day, a carnage worthy of the Disasters of War took place." It's an unsubtle but powerful metaphor for that infamous convention.

Richard Ben Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, pursues a slightly more conventional approach in "What It Takes," obtaining great access during the 1988 campaign, especially to Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush.

The book begins with a lengthy description of Bush throwing out the first ball at a Houston Astros baseball game in the fall of 1987. (One has to wonder if Don DeLillo didn't read it as he was crafting the first chapter of "Underworld.") "What It Takes" is one of the finest of the genre — Cramer climbs inside candidates' minds and captures them perfectly: the neurotic motivations, the histories, the energy, the vulnerabilities, even the cadence of their voices.

Cynicism and contempt

Joe McGinniss, who followed Richard Nixon around for the better part of 1968, stands athwart the whole process of electing a modern president in "The Selling of the President 1968." The political pros happily reveal to him how they aim to use the most manipulative, cynical tools at their disposal, treating voters as little more than sheep being led to electoral slaughter.

He introduces us to Nixon's "ethnic specialist," Kevin Phillips, who crafted Nixon's "Southern strategy" of using race and crime to peel off votes from the Democrats in the South and West. (The name sounds familiar because Phillips, now an author, has become a turncoat liberal.)

He quotes Phillips: "(John) Wayne might sound bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks we're trying to reach through John Wayne. The people down there along the Yahoo Belt. If I had the time I'd check to see in what areas 'The Green Berets' was held over, and I'd play a special series of John Wayne spots wherever it was."

Hunter S. Thompson brings his acute and psychedelic taste for the absurd to the task of campaign journalism in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72."

In the middle of a nightly bender in Florida, he runs into an acidhead at a hamburger joint (though, with Thompson, it may well be an alter ego). He gives this low-octane maniac his press pass for the campaign train of Edwin Muskie, then a favorite for the Democratic nomination, and an object of Thompson's absolute, white-hot contempt.

While Muskie attempts to make a speech, the acidhead talks over him, babbling loudly about needing another gin. It's a politician's worst nightmare. The rest of the press corps tells Thompson that it was the beginning of the end of the Muskie campaign, and Thompson revels in taking the credit.

The master of the art

Just as every poet owes some debt to "The Illiad," all of these fine writers are paying their own kind of distinct tribute to Theodore White, who invented the campaign-book genre with "The Making of the President 1960." (The title of McGinniss' book is an obvious play on the title.)

White evidently learned to write before the invention of the television. His prose is elegant and spare but descriptive.

Here, he describes meeting Adlai Stevenson at his country home in Illinois, the scene a fine psychological insight into Stevenson's reticence about running.

"We sat close to a flower bed of peonies and iris under a maple tree and the sun beat down, even in early morning, with the heavy June heat of the plains. A flight of enormous tangerine-colored butterflies swept back and forth across the lawn."

Only a fool — a fascinating, brilliant, red-blooded fool — would give that up to run for the White House, White is telling us.

Thankfully, these are fascinating, brilliant, red-blooded books, even if they are often forced to tell the stories of foolish men.

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or jcoolican@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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