‘Troubling.” That was Mitt Romney’s judgment, from the sparky second debate, on the fact that President Obama held a fund-raiser in Vegas the day after ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Libya. The implication? That this was unseemly. That it wasn’t the time to pick politics over command, that there was “symbolic significance.” And then our coolest of presidents heated up: “The suggestion that anybody in my team . . . would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” he said. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president.”
As their temperatures rose, I thought Romney had messed up; a challenger can look callow second-guessing the terrible responsibility of the office. Then again, Obama ducked the truth that he did, indeed, attend the fund-raiser. It’s said that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but it shouldn’t this time because there’s a deeper story here: Obama has done more fund-raising than any incumbent in history. He’s held 220-plus events since April 2011, when he announced his bid for re-election, more than twice as many as George W. Bush (86 events in his first term).
Fresh from the debate, I read a book that put this in eye-opening context. It’s called “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign” (University Press of Kansas, 2012). And it’s by Brendan J. Doherty, a US Naval Academy political-science professor. He takes care to remind us of that Paleolithic era, when presidential campaigns kicked off at Labor Day of election year. Yes, friends, the presidency was once cleanly divided between periods of governing and periods of campaigning. It’s not news that this idea, as Doherty says, “no longer holds.” What is news is how radically things have changed.
It comes down to cash, of course. Ever since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, which placed tight limits on campaign contributions by individuals, political parties, and political action committees, incumbent presidents seeking re-election must devote more time to raise enough funds; Doherty likes the title “Fund-raiser-in-Chief.” Add in the Citizens United decision of 2010, which ruled that the government could not restrict political contributions by corporations and unions. The result? In this election, a Democratic president who must do double time to keep up with a Republican juggernaut, fueled by business donations.
Doherty doesn’t just show me the money, though. He offers some alarming discourse on the sway of the Electoral College. Sure, it steers a campaign’s allocation of resources — but it also steers the president’s actions in office. If you live in a small state that votes against the incumbent party, you’re out of luck: George W. Bush never visited Vermont; Clinton got to Nebraska once. Nevada is small, yes, but it’s a crucial swing state, which went to Obama in 2008, but may go to Romney now (due to its 7 percent Mormon population and 11.8 percent unemployment rate).
In other words, purple states get the most love.
The emphasis on strategy continues in “The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House” (Oxford University, 2012.) Author Samuel L. Popkin is a war room kind of guy, and consulted for George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore. He divvies campaigns into three categories: the incumbent up for reelection (George H.W. Bush), the new challenger (Hillary Clinton), and the vice president angling to be successor (Gore). Popkin points blame at each losing staff — he savages John Sununu — and titles his last chapter “Is This Any Way to Pick a President?” No, it isn’t. Then again, as Popkin concedes: “The history of presidential campaigning is a history of vulgarization and pandering.”
And, honestly, it’s so tame now! Romney calling Obama’s actions “troubling” is nothing: John Quincy Adams’s supporters circulated a “Coffin Handbill” against Andrew Jackson, which featured an illustration of six coffins, denoting the soldiers Jackson had executed (unfairly, they said) for desertion. They also claimed Jackson’s mother was a prostitute. I cadged that from “Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University, 2004). Author Paul F. Boller Jr.’s list of nasties against the aspirants includes “pickpocket, thief, traitor, lecher, syphilitic, gorilla, crook, anarchist, and murderer.” How to pick from such bounty? Here’s a good pickpocket story: William Jennings Bryan, running against the gold standard, liked to ask the crowds at his whistlestops to raise their hands if they had gold in their pockets, then if they had silver — meanwhile a gang of thieves, who’d secretly boarded Bryan’s train, made off with the metals, using Bryan’s question to help them select victims.
“Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising” (Oxford University, 1992) beautifully shows how modern media changed everything. Author Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, starts by describing how “Silent Cal’’ Coolidge actually made a lot of noise: He was the first president to have his State of the Union address broadcast on radio, and more people heard him during his term than all his predecessors combined. After radio, campaign newsreels became the rage: One may have been the tipping point to President Truman’s 1948 razor-thin victory.
Then, of course, came the infamous TV ads. We all remember Willie Horton — but I’d forgotten that President H.W. Bush’s people also handed out Monopoly-style “Get Out of Jail Free” cards that claimed Michael Dukakis was “the killer’s best friend.” And we all remember LBJ’s anti-Barry Goldwater “daisy ad,” in which a little girl picking daisies is eclipsed by a nuclear explosion. But do you know about the same agency’s “Eastern seaboard” ad? To play off Goldwater’s remark that the United States would be better off without this elitist region, it shows a map of the country — with the East Coast lopped off.
Now these books are all smart and good, but my heart lies with that genre of garrulous, intimate campaign books that read like novels, and are the prose equivalent of caffeine and corn dogs. Take Michael Lewis’s “Losers: The Road to Everyplace But the White House” (Vintage, 1998, previously titled “Trail Fever”) in which he lets on that most candidates wave and smile for the camera, even though no one’s there, when they get off a plane. His stuff on visiting Senator Robert Dole’s modest Kansas boyhood home, where he tended his World War II wounds, is quite moving. And he paints a wicked portrait of a St. Patrick’s Day parade, in which drunk hecklers call out “Yo, Hitler!” to Pat Buchanan.
Then there’s “What It Takes: The Way to the White House” (Random House, 1992) by the great journalist Richard Ben Cramer. OK, so his prose cries Tom Wolfe too much, but who cares; the reporting is flat out tremendous. Somehow, Cramer makes each vacuum-packed candidate — George H.W. Bush, Dole, Dukakis, Gary Hart, Joe Biden, and Richard Gephardt — startlingly real. The pugnacious Biden you saw in the veep debate? He’s here in all his sloppy, mistake-making, family-first, Bork-defeating glory.
But I think the gold standard (sorry, Mr. Bryan) remains Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” (first out in 1973, reissued by Simon & Schuster, 2012). God, it was fun to dip back into this. To read how Edmund Muskie’s staff thinks he’s so unstable they don’t know if he’s going to be “Abe Lincoln, Hamlet, Captain Queeg, or Bobo the Simpleminded.” Or that still incredible scene in which Thompson and Richard Nixon have a surreal, impassioned conversation about pro football. I even felt pain anew at McGovern’s landslide loss, to which his staff reacts with “weeping chaos.”
You know, one of our country’s most profound achievements is our peaceful transfer of power. Instead of bloodshed, we have long, profane, messy elections. Big picture? That’s not so troubling.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.