John Dickerson, moderator of CBS's Face the Nation and CBS News Political Director, has taken his Whistlestop podcasts broadcast on the Panoply network, and collected them into an extremely instructive and captivating history of American presidential campaigns.
His essays on specific events that affected the downfalls or victories of a number of candidates are not presented in chronological order and Dickerson doesn’t attempt to cover every election in U.S. history. In fact, his looks at campaigns that took place in the 19th century of Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James Blaine, and Grover Cleveland appear in the last half of the book. Among the missing campaigns were those of Ross Perot, John McCain’s second run with Sarah Palin as his running mate, James Buchanan, Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, and Franklin Pierce. Of course, if every candidate made an appearance, we’d be looking at a very hefty tome or a multi-volume series.
Instead, the book is organized thematically, with Harry Truman and Bill Clinton in the “Comebacks” category, Eugene McCarthy, Ed Muskie, Howard Dean, and Michael Dukakis in “Collapses.” Dwight Eisenhower and Andrew Jackson share a section labelled “Too Close to Call.” Ironically, the last section, “Crashing the Party,” concludes the book with the third party run of George Wallace which is, echoing similar campaigns like that of Barry Goldwater in 1964, a harbinger of Donald Trump’s win this year. In fact, one message seems to be once the two party battles began in 1800, many elections since have more in common than some might believe.
Countless discussions these days focus on the divisiveness and partisanship of our politics, as if we’re now living in times markedly different from a mythological united past. However, once the factions of government began to coalesce with the elections of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, wide chasms in the electorate began to develop in ways modern voters would recognize. The Republican party, for example, had fights between extreme conservatives like Robert Taft and so-called moderates like Dwight Eisenhower long before the Tea Party and our current Congress. Image building and spin-doctoring were evident in the campaigns of Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison who wasn’t born in a log cabin, despite the myth created around him. Mudslinging began very early in the electoral process with trustworthiness and sexual misconduct means to blacken the reputations of a number of candidates long before modern finger-pointing and sanctimony.
Of course, the history Dickerson presents isn’t ground-breaking, although many of the stories aren’t widely known but should be. His entertaining writing style keeps his observations fresh and engaging and he is even-handed in pointing to the flaws, foibles, successes, and wins for both the major parties.
Clearly, political junkies will not want to miss this collection, but I think all Americans should take the time to dig into this essential round-up of past elections. It provides context for our understanding of presidential campaigns and shows how our electoral system has somewhat evolved over the past two centuries. As well as how much we haven’t evolved, or devolved, as much as we might think.
This review first appeared Nov. 24, 2016 at BookPleasures.com: