What It Takes

WHAT IT TAKES….In the New York Times today, conventional wisdom guru Mark Halperin says that he’s finally learned his lesson: he now believes that political reporters should spend less time covering campaign horserace trivia and more time covering the candidates’ actual qualifications to run the United States. Halperin’s road to Damascus moment has already been thoroughly mocked throughout the blogosphere this morning, so I’ll refrain from adding to the bonfire. But I am curious about his explanation for two decades of merciless campaign gossipmongering:

More than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.

I’m not alone. The book’s thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.

I’ve never read Cramer’s book (though several people have recommended it), but it sure sounds strikingly familiar. Teddy White’s famous “Making of the Presidency” books, starting in 1960, were all narrative tick tocks that emphasized the grueling nature of modern campaigns and their obsessive focus on strategizing and press relations. Joe McGinniss’s 1968 The Selling of the Presidency was all about the Nixon campaign’s marketing strategy. Even quintessential outsider Hunter S. Thompson, in his 1972 dispatches for Rolling Stone (later collected in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72), mostly spotlighted personalities and campaign minutiae.

These were all tremendously influential books long before Cramer wrote What It Takes. And while Cramer might have taken personality-based campaign reporting further than anyone had taken it before, my (imperfect) memory of day-to-day campaign reporting from 1976 on suggests that suprisingly little has changed in the past three decades. Daily campaign coverage in every race I can remember has mostly been about polls, personalities, campaign strategies, speeches, debate performances, the expectations game, and the all important horserace. Today’s coverage may be more intense and even more personality driven than in the past, but it’s a matter of degree, not substance.

So what’s really changed? The coverage itself seems to have evolved, but it hasn’t morphed into something entirely new. Perhaps it’s this: in the older books, the fact that presidential candidates had to survive an ungodly gauntlet of scrutiny and rubber chicken banquets was reported as a fact of life, but it was (again, to my recollection) mostly reported as an unfortunate fact of life. As in, “How unfortunate that some of the people best suited to be president will never have a chance because they aren’t suited to the preposterous rigors of modern campaigning.” Maybe after 20 years of this, Cramer provided the press for the first time with a rationalization for its part in this destruction test: don’t think of it as unfortunate, think of it as necessary. By making a mountain out of every molehill, reporters are actually providing a stern test that eliminates weaklings who shouldn’t be trusted to have their fingers on the button.

Perhaps. But regardless of whether this is true, it’s merely a rationalization. Contemporary campaigns may be even more grueling than they were a few decades ago — thanks to modern technology, longer primary seasons, and a bigger press corps — but I doubt that What It Takes is really reponsible for the media’s current fascination with personality and horserace journalism. That’s always been there.

And the reason for this is pretty simple, too: campaigns are boring. When you cover a candidate every day for months on end, listening to interchangeable stump speeches hundreds of times and being bustled around like cattle to anonymous coffee klatsches and flesh pressing events 16 hours a day, you’re going to seize on almost anything to break the monotony. The candidates mostly won’t talk to you, after all, and there are only so many times you can write 3,000-word thumbsuckers comparing the various healthcare plans on offer. What’s more, the code of objectivity in American journalism actively prevents reporters from writing about whether the various nominees “have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world.” That would be too much like taking sides. Unless and until that changes, they’ll continue to relieve their boredom by writing about supposedly more neutral topics like polls, insider strategy, and what “many people” are saying.

So while it’s nice to see Halperin’s mea culpa, I think I’ll wait to see if he actually changes the way he covers this year’s campaign. And then we’ll see if anyone follows suit. My take: since modern press coverage is not a result of the individual foibles of modern campaign reporters, but is rather a natural response to the realities of modern campaigning and the modern media environment, the respective odds are slim and none.