In the beginning there was Theodore White, the legendary observer of 20th century presidential campaigns, with his “Making of the President 1960.” Then there was Joe McGinniss’ brilliant account of the first iteration of modern campaign consulting, “The Selling of the President,” and Hunter S. Thompson’s dystopian companion piece, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” Many years later, Richard Ben Cramer wrote “What It Takes,” the “Ulysses” of campaign chronicles.
As I write these words, I glance up to scan these and other titles, their well-worn spines poking out from my shelves like the face of a literary Rushmore. For generations of readers, they humanized our politics even as they demystified it.
Not so much today, in the age of “Game Change” and “Double Down” and whatever the upcoming installment in the series will be called — maybe “Winning Bigly” or some other cliché that won’t outlive the moment. This week, Washington is amusing itself with “nuggets” from a book called “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign,” which managed to beat its competitors to the virtual shelves of your Kindle.
(How I despise that word: “nuggets.” Almost as much as I hate the words “juicy” and “buzzy.” If I were an unelected czar, like Jared Kushner, I’d issue an edict saying that anyone using the term “buzzy” without irony could be beaten senseless with his own keyboard, the assailant subject only to a minor fine.)
I don’t know the authors of “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, but they seem like capable and energetic reporters. There’s no lack of industry in the breezy book they apparently wrote in less time than it takes me to finish reading one.
No, my problem is with the entire genre of contemporary campaign books, which don’t illuminate the soullessness of our political culture so much as they reflect it.
You can’t really treat presidential politics as a form of shallow entertainment and then claim to be shocked when a shallow entertainer wins the presidency.
I get why today’s political writers would want to emulate the books a lot of us grew up reading, the ones that made covering campaigns seem noble and glamorous. I get why book publishers will still lay out sizable advances for them, since politics has never been an easier sell than it is now among the subset of passionate readers who follow Politico in the same way that some of us refresh ESPN 20 times a day.
But you can’t actually write the books that a McGinniss or a Cramer wrote now, even if you have half their talent. That’s because, to quote “Hamilton,” those guys were in the room where it happened. They were witnesses to history, at a time when history hadn’t yet conspired to lock them out.
I once worked for a magazine called Newsweek (go ask your parents), which every four years, at monumental expense, sent a reporter to embed himself or herself in every major presidential…