How Much Do We Learn From the First Cut of History?

How Much Do We Learn From the First Cut of History?

How Much Do We Learn From the First Cut of History?

One year later, the blockbuster Game Change can be read as much for how little election narratives explain about history as for the story of the 2008 campaign.


Last year it seemed almost impossible to walk through an airport without noticing someone reading a copy of Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The book captured the public’s imagination through a vivid account of the personalities in the 2008 presidential campaign. For Americans who couldn’t quite let go of the long campaign season, Game Change offered one last hurrah.

The success of the book took many publishers by surprise, as it resuscitated a genre that seemed dead: the election narrative. Notwithstanding the quality of such books released in recent years, these were tough books to sell in the age of twenty-four-hour news. Blogs, websites, cable television shows and other media outlets had provided every possible detail of a campaign before these books could be written. The only way to get any attention, it seemed, was with a dramatic hook, like Joe Klein’s Primary Colors (1996), which Klein published anonymously and which kept Washington buzzing for weeks.

Initially, the popularity of the book seemed to reflect the sheer drama of 2008 and the Kennedyesque popularity of the new president. After all, who wouldn’t want to read a juicy account that somehow promised new information about the campaign when everything seemed to have already been said?

Yet about a year and a half later, as Game Change is released in paperback, the book reads differently. As many of Obama’s supporters have become more sober about the president’s ability, and his willingness, to change the way that politics works, we can read the book for the limits of the genre it represents, rather than for the saga of the candidates and the handlers.

The election narrative dates back to Theodore White’s The Making of a President (1961). White’s account of the 1960 election allowed readers to delve deep into the drama of the primaries and general election. Democrats offered White unparalleled access to their campaigns, and since he started covering the race early he captured John F. Kennedy from beginning of his national political emergence.

Readers enjoyed a first-hand account of the story of Kennedy, a charismatic candidate who, in White’s mind, offered a fresh perspective on the big issues of the day. White recounted standing in the crowds who came to see Kennedy speak, "sensing far off on the edge of it a ripple of pressure beginning, and the ripple, which always started at the back, would grow like a wave, surging forward as it gathered strength.", White opened up the personal world of the candidates. Employing the literary style of a fiction writer to heighten the drama, White offered readers a feel for what it was like to be on the campaign trail and an intimate portrait of the victor.

The book was smash hit. The Making of a President remained on the best-seller list for over forty weeks. White received a Pulitzer Prize. Just as important, a new kind of book had been born: the first cut of history about an election.

White did come under criticism in the coming years; critics argued that he had dismissed Richard Nixon while mythologizing Kennedy. White had spent more time with Kennedy, whose advisors purposely fed the writer favorable stories (and hid unfavorable information). Historian W.J. Rorabaugh has challenged White’s account, characterizing it as a "morality tale in which the virtuous, liberal Kennedy conquered the morally ambiguous Nixon."

Although White himself never recreated the magic from the first book, the genre of writing that White popularized endured. When elections end, we expect an instant history to be published to help us understand what really happened. While the formula for the books has not varied greatly, there have been notable changes in the substance.

One important development was evident by the late 1960s. Authors, who tend to be journalists, generally abandoned the kind of mythologizing that was so prevalent in White’s account. As a result of the turbulent 1960s, most journalists became less trustful of government, just like all other Americans. The thrill of Camelot was gone.

Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of a Candidate (1969) cynically interpreted how Republican Richard Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968, offering a sharp contrast to White. "Politics, in a sense," McGinnis wrote, "has always been a con game." McGinnis showed how Nixon’s media consultants manufactured an image of their candidate and fooled gullible voters, selling him like any other commercial product.

Many experts eventually concluded that The Selling of a Candidate, which was on the bestseller list for seven months and made McGinnis the second biggest non-fiction author under 30, was too simplistic in its treatment of voters. Yet the book altered the terms of the election narrative by foregrounding skepticism about the candidates and their handlers, as well as voters. McGinnis also shifted attention away from the candidates and toward the advisers, aides and consultants who surrounded them.

The writing style in these books evolved quickly. Two works on the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972, based on collections of articles by Rolling Stone reporters Hunter Thompson and Timothy Crouse deeply impacted the genre. Gonzo journalism came to the election narrative when Hunter Thompson published Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1973). Thompson captured the fracturing of the Democratic Party and the contradictions of politicians who claimed to be working against the establishment yet relied on very traditional political methods. Hunter abandoned the tight narrative structure that had characterized earlier books and transparently injected his opinions into the story.

Another instant classic was Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus (1973). Like McGinnis, Rouse concluded that the real action was not so much with the candidates as with the people who surrounded them. Crouse introduced readers to "pack journalism," the phenomenon whereby hordes of journalists follow candidates across the country and develop the homogenous mindset of a group rather than of individual writers. The press was taking on the role once held by party bosses in determining who the best candidate was.

Crouse followed the reporters who hovered around the candidates as they made their way across the country. Reporters had appeared in White’s book, but had not been the focus. Crouse showed how political reporters started to think alike and grew distant from their readers. Of the reporters covering McGovern, Crouse wrote, "What they knew best was not the American electorate but the tiny community of the press plane, a totally abnormal world that combined the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March." Crouse also noted how White’s book had impacted campaign reporting, as the press felt pressure to pay closer attention to the inner workings of campaigns and started to cover the contest earlier, hoping to be there when the winner emerged.

Sometimes unremarkable campaigns became the focus of excellent books. This was the case with the presidential election of 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes (1993) provided a richly textured account of the Democrats and Republicans who competed in the primaries. Cramer depicted the campaign process as a brutal exercise where media consultants destroyed good candidates and reporters focused on the wrong issues. The book, according to Mark Halperin, showed how "our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win rather than who should win."

Although most election narratives mimicked the tendency of journalists to treat campaigns as horse races where issues and historical context were not very relevant, Sidney Blumenthal’s work on the 1988 election, Pledging Allegiance (1990), was an exception. Blumenthal characterized the battle between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis as the last election of the cold war. Blumenthal recounted how, even as the Soviet Union collapsed, the cold war had so skewed American politics that the candidates refused to grapple with the emerging issues and held on to outdated rhetoric. Republicans benefited more than Democrats, who couldn’t find the right message in the 1980s. Dukakis, Blumenthal wrote, "seemed paralyzed by Bush’s cold war barrages."

Game Change offered something fresh to this genre. The book, which sold out on its first day, was based on an enormous wealth of insider interviews where campaign operatives spilled some revelatory information about what had happened. The authors put forth an anthropological exposé of the circus of professional campaign operators who surrounded the candidates and ran the show. The book was a logical culmination of the shift that started with Joe McGinnis. Game Change came full circle from White’s examination of Kennedy. Whereas Theodore White had been fascinated by the candidates and their loyal team advisors, the genre had gradually pushed writers into the cold and impersonal professionalized world that candidates stepped into. Read from the perspective of 2010, we can look back at some of the Teddy White–like promise bestowed upon Obama upon his election with more skepticism and doubts.

Yet even with its more cynical look at the election process, Game Change suffered from some of the same limitations of the election narrative genre—rooted all the way back to Teddy White’s heroic account—that exaggerate the possibility of change that elections can bring without fundamental reforms in the way that our institutions work. Election narratives are grounded on the same kind of belief about the possible impact of elections—thus their decision to focus so much attention on them above other parts of politics—that usually leaves Americans frustrated after the difficulties of governance begin.

Historians and historical political scientists who write about elections have a different take on elections than most journalists. On the one hand, scholars downplay the notion that the specific candidates and their campaigns have as big an impact on the outcome as journalists suggest. While the election narratives stress the horse race between candidates, scholars point to broader forces that move the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, in the most recent election, a majority of political scientists agreed that President Bush’s abysmal approval ratings combined with the poor economic conditions dictated that almost any competent Democrat would have won.

On the other hand, scholars have also been more interested in how institutional pressures will limit new presidents rather than seeing elections as moments of great opportunity. Without fundamental reforms in government, presidencies don’t vary as greatly as we think. For example, the enormous role of private money in the election process means interest groups will be as influential in new term as they were during what preceded.

Public opinion scholars have also demonstrated how voter preferences don’t shift as suddenly as election narratives suggest. There aren’t many "game changes" in the electorate. Indeed, many political scientists no longer accept the concept of realigning elections, which had once been a staple of historical research. For many decades there was a body of scholarship claiming that certain critical elections produced realignments of political power and new sets of policies (such as 1896 or 1932). In a trenchant critique of this literature, Yale University’s David Mayhew debunks almost every classic example of elections that were said to have resulted in such changes.

As President Obama finishes his second year, he and his staff would do well to catch up on what the social scientists have been saying about politics in addition to the books about his campaign. Though certainly not as engaging, their work offers great insight into the constraints of governance that he has faced. When Obama abandoned government reform upon taking office he ensured that he would have to struggle against the many structural factors that social scientists have been writing about, such as Senate rules that require sixty votes on all legislation or the revolving door between Congress and K Street.

The election narrative will always have a central place in the canon of political history. After all, what can be more dramatic than men and women competing for the most powerful office in the world. Whom voters pick to be president matters, as many people believe that the post-9/11 world could have been very different had Al Gore been president.

But each election does not remake American politics. Sometimes we need to step back from the play-by-play to better understand the rules of the game. Mythologizing elections causes us to forget the difficult playing field that new presidents will encounter and shifts us away from the macro-forces that shaped election outcomes. Unless we put presidential election in their proper context, the nation will continue to subject itself to the frustration that inevitably comes from realizing that exciting candidates who claim a mandate to change politics very often can’t deliver.

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