The 2012 presidential election – book review special

By Josh Cowls

I’m currently in New Hampshire, so this week I bore witness to one of the more extraordinary spectacles in the modern political world: the New Hampshire primary. Every four years, candidates from one or both of the main American parties head to the state to fight for their party’s nomination. New Hampshire is a north-eastern state, usually frozen over at this time of year, but its small population (42nd in the Union) and geographic size (46th) should not belie its importance in choosing presidents. New Hampshire proudly lays claim to being the first in the nation to hold its primary contest every four years (this is in fact prescribed in state law), and the state’s residents tend to take this role very seriously.

And so, after weeks and months of stump speeches, hand shakes, coffee mornings, door knocks and phone calls, hundreds of thousands turned out on Tuesday to cast their vote for would-be President. Of course, the primary marks not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning of the presidential election, with nominating contests through the spring and summer, the party’s respective National Conventions in August and the general election itself on November 6th – with the (re)inauguration of the President roughly a year from now. It’s a hectic schedule, and vast in comparison with the five or six weeks of relatively (dare I say) tepid campaigning every five or so years in the UK. So here to prepare you for the months ahead is a look at three books covering earlier presidential elections, each shedding insight into the truly exhaustive process used to pick the President, and each offering a lesson about how this process is covered by the press.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S Thompson (1972)

Hunter S. Thompson is best known for creating so-called Gonzo journalism, essentially method acting for reporters, in which objectivity is sacrificed for the sake of style, bringing the reader much closer to the action. Thompson’s best known work, 1970’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, saw him swerve his way across America, but by 1972 he had turned his typewriter to focus on that year’s presidential election. What results is a series of monthly articles – originally penned for Rolling Stone magazine – offering an introspective yet surprisingly enlightening view of a tumultuous election year.

Thompson focusses mostly on the candidacy of George McGovern, a pacifistic Senator from South Dakota, seeing him as “the only candidate in either party worth voting for”. In hindsight this proves to be a wise decision, as McGovern, whose campaign was written off as hopeless by most pundits, gradually etched out a series of victories over the course of the year – some electoral, some merely moral – and ended up on the ticket. He secured the nomination at the Democratic National Convention (a manner of victory which has become rare, as parties now tend to coalesce around the leading candidate after the first handful of nominating contests) after winning round enough delegates.

Thompson’s description of this process is perhaps the highlight of the collection. He delves deliciously into the murky workings of campaign operatives – in one essay writing in the second person to devastating effect, describing how “you, the ambitious young lawyer with no skeletons in the closet”, become the victim of ruthless entrapment and blackmail, forcing you to cast your vote for a certain candidate at the Convention. Thompson described the crucial hours of the Convention itself “as like a scene from the final hours of the Roman Empire: everywhere you looked,  some prominent politician was degrading himself in public.”

As such, though Thompson modestly argues that what happened at the Convention itself “was far too serious for the kind of random indulgence that Gonzo Journalism needs”, his political insight is often razor sharp, and his account of life on a campaign trail far more honest than could be expected of the average journalist. Politics, Thompson argues, is no different to hard drug addiction: “there is a fantastic adrenaline high that comes with total involvement in a fast-moving political campaign”. As a serial dabbler in both drugs and democracy, Thompson is well-placed to make the connection.

Primary Colors, Joe Klein (1996)

Originally released anonymously, journalist Joe Klein’s thinly-veiled depiction of then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s capture of the Democratic nomination in 1992 garnered great controversy, which is unsurprising given the novel’s base themes and events. Written from the first-person perspective of campaign staffer Henry Burton, the narrative follows the campaign of Governor Jack Stanton through his turbulent path to the nomination.

Stanton’s virtues and vices are described in acute detail: the first few paragraphs are dedicated to a description of the Governor’s masterful and multifarious handshake, “the threshold act, the beginning of politics”. A few pages on, whilst meeting children at a Harlem school, Stanton’s almost preternatural ability to connect with an audience and his use of anecdote is on full show, as he waxes lyrical about an illiterate uncle, and later on, his declaration to a group of shipyard workers that “I’m going to do something really outrageous, tell you the truth” comes pretty close to matching that paragon of presidents, Jed Bartlet.

Yet Stanton’s vices are perhaps even more prominent in Klein’s work. The text alludes to a handful of scandals that hew closely to those which threatened to down Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Two allegorical allegations are particularly pertinent – the suggestion of an affair with one Cashmere McLeod (inspired by the falsified accusations of Gennifer Flowers) and a Vietnam issue both surface, but are dealt with by Stanton’s dogged staff and thanks to his own charisma. In my opinion, the novel loses much of is explanatory power when it drives off into the realms of fantasy later in the campaign – one staffer is brought in to hush up opponents with the use of a pistol, for example.

Despite this later drift, overall the story is a good one, and the similarities to real-life Clinton starters and rival candidates are fun to pinpoint. Klein was eventually ‘outed’ as the author six months after the publication, and he describes in a later afterword the “strange and potentially dangerous situation” in which other journalists had hounded him to admit his authorship. This context adds an ironic “life imitating art” dynamic to the text, and becomes, following Thompson, further evidence of the curious relationship between politics and press.

Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (2010)

Released, for some reason, as Race of a Lifetime in the UK, Heilemann and Halperin’s impressively immersive account of the fascinating 2008 election follows each of the major candidates through the primaries and general election. The biggest headline of 2008 was, of course, the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president, an event truly historic in itself. Throw in the prospect of the first female president, then vice-president, in the figures of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin respectively, as well as the tragic story of John Edwards’ campaign, and the authors have on their hands a hugely dramatic and dynamic account. The fascinating revelations which the authors offer up bring even more vibrant colour in retrospect to a race which was engaging enough to see unfold in real time.

That said, the publication of the book was met with much controversy (observant readers will have noticed a theme here). The ‘authors’ note’ at the start explains the curious rendering of the text. Quotation marks are used for precise quotes, whilst where “dialogue is not within quotes, it is paraphrased”. This is a clever approach, as the reader becomes so absorbed in the book from the first page onwards that formatting niceties are quickly forgotten, allowing the authors a freer reign to enliven the story.

Heilemann and Halperin have defended their sources and their style against charges of “gossip”, but this debate is only the latest episode in the long-running, often traumatic relationship between politics and the press, which rather resembles a resentful marriage: they can’t live with each other, but they can’t live without each other either. Having been a candidate for mayor in a previous existence, Hunter S Thompson claimed to be “the only journalist covering the ’72 presidential campaign who has done any time on the other side” of the divide, so perhaps it is best to defer to his judgement of the role of the press covering politics:

“You won’t find many working reporters defending the concept of Pure Objectivity. They know better.”

It remains to be seen how this year’s race unfolds, and how the press portrays it.

Josh Cowls is on Twitter: @JoshCowls

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