The Campaign Doctors

THE QUEST FOR THE PRESIDENCY 1984 by Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller. Bantam Books, $17.95.
THE NONFICTION BOOK that both tells a story and explains an important subject is a noble cause, but elusive. Most true stories just don’t have much potential for rich analysis—gruesome murders, for example, which ever since Truman Capote clinically picked them as the ideal subject for the “nonfiction novel” have been the most durable subject of narrative nonfiction. A presidential campaign, though, ought to be a perfect subject for a book that is meant both to spin a yarn and to make a point. There’s a clearly defined line of dramatic action, taking place in a variety of settings and building inevitably toward a climactic resolution; and in the background are the politics, economics, demographics, and psychology of the United States, about which something important is sure to be revealed in the course of the campaign.
Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960, though a little dated today by its benign view of authority figures, proved that this potential could be realized. A few later books that dealt with some smaller part of the whole enterprise—advertising (Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968) or the press (Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus)—also were successful as both narrative and analysis. But the potential of campaigns—and, for that matter, doings at the high levels of politics and government generally—conceals a danger: the compromises inherent in gathering the material. Every novelist has, as they say in journalism, total access. Political journalists have total access only to the public side of the campaign, which everybody knows about already; an account from the inside that uses scenes, dialogue, characterization, and plot requires making deals with the subjects, as absolutely as lungs require oxygen. These deals can be Faustian: the conditions that make it possible to tell the tale can make it nearly impossible to tell the truth.
This book by two Newsweek reporters (with help from several other members of the Newsweek staff) is, unfortunately, a perfect example of the way the bargains made with sources limit the perspective, the range, and even the language of journalism. In particular it’s a testament to how difficult life has become for people trying to work the White lode these days. The Making of the President, by proving how interesting campaigns could be, helped bring about a tremendous increase in the size of the campaign press corps. There were 5,500 reporters at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, and there were 14,000 reporters in San Francisco in 1984. Material is harder to come by, because there’s more competition for it, and also because politics has changed—party organizations have declined, television has risen—in ways that have made politicians much more guarded around the press.
The salvation of behind-the-scenes reporters like Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller has been the rise of paid political consultants, who move from job to job all over the country, as crucial figures in campaigns. They produce television advertising, take polls, run phone banks and direct-mail operations and grassroots-organizing campaigns—establishing the link between politicians and voters, as the local party bosses used to do. They’re also the world’s best sources. They’re on the inside, they follow the press closely enough to know the kind of material reporters are desperate for, and they’re accessible. After a long day of unreturned phone calls and weaselly statements from press secretaries, it’s sweet, sweet balm to call one of them, be put on the line instantly, told your stuff is great, and given the real story behind the official version of today’s events.
Why are they so nice? In part, the pros share with reporters a love of politics, often to the exclusion of the rest of life, combined with a slight uninvolvement in the fortunes of any particular candidate. Both groups know that whatever happens to this campaign, they’ll be aboard the next one. And, psychological niceties aside, it’s a business relationship: the pros need publicity to get another round of clients after this campaign is over. Somehow, in their accounts of the campaign their own roles—unrecognized author of victory, ignored Jeremiah before defeat—are seldom left out.
Goldman and Fuller seem to have gotten almost none of their material from President Reagan or Walter Mondale, though both were interviewed. Very little comes from the people in charge of the campaigns, James Baker and James Johnson, who knew they wouldn’t be hiring themselves out again. The campaigns come to us here mainly through the eyes of the denizens of the next level down, who leaked throughout 1984 on the promise that what they gave Goldman and Fuller wouldn’t be published in Newsweek until after Election Day, just when they’d be looking for work again. It isn’t surprising that the sources come out well—they’re almost comically wise, prescient, and tough. And, coincidentally, the people who seem not to have confided in Goldman and Fuller lack these qualities.
A LAS, THE MOST important source in the book, the pollster Patrick Caddell, is also, of all the political pros in Washington, the one most legendary as a self-promoting news source, an unrelenting credit-grabber and self-dramatizer. Though he has been close at hand during some of the greatest disasters of modern-day Democratic politics (George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, Jimmy Carter’s in 1980, Carter’s contemplation of the national “malaise” in the gas-line summer of 1979), he has been able to maintain a reputation as a genius (though “difficult”), in part by repeatedly laying out the behind-thescenes story, with himself as hero, to grateful reporters. In Goldman and Fuller’s hands, the legend only grows.
Caddell’s modus operandi is first, in the earliest stirrings of a campaign, to retreat to his study and produce a very long memorandum on the mood of the electorate, which includes both polling data and a smattering of quotes from best-selling big-think books. The memo will say, in essence, that (a) the Democrats are in deep, deep trouble, far worse than anyone but Caddell has imagined, but (b) there is one way out, which is very risky and difficult and could easily be botched. A copy of the memo falls into the hands of a candidate, who is stunned by its brilliance and invites Caddell aboard. At first Caddell is allowed to carry out his blueprint, and the candidate shoots up in the (that is, Caddell’s) polls; then the resentful and small-minded nuts-and-bolts campaign staff begins to shut him out, Caddell quits, and the candidate plummets (again, in Caddell’s polls). The sad story comes out in the papers, and Caddell clambers aboard a new campaign.
Here’s how the script played out in the last presidential campaign, according to Goldman and Fuller: In 1983 Caddell writes a memo about the importance of new ideas and a new generation of leadership. Its arguments are buttressed by the results of a poll he took in Iowa where a “Candidate C” running on those themes came out of nowhere to beat “Candidate A” and “Candidate B,” based on Mondale and John Glenn. Then he tries at length to persuade his friend Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, to run for President as Candidate C. (Another campaign book, Wake Us When It’s Over, by Jack Germond and Jules Witeover, says that Caddell wooed Senator Dale Bumpers, of Arkansas, before Biden, but Goldman and Fuller don’t mention this.) When Biden opts out, he presents the Candidate C memo to Gary Hart, whose campaign is in the doldrums, and signs on as a key adviser. It’s not long before “suddenly, people began listening to [Hart].”
On the eve of Hart’s great upset of Mondale in New Hampshire, Hart’s old staff won’t take the advice in Caddell’s memos. “That’s it for me, ” he thinks bitterly. “I'm leaving the campaign. I’m finished.” Somehow he summons the inner strength to stay on, and by Georgia he is cannily advising Hart to go directly on the attack against Mondale. But the small-minded staff torpedoes Caddell’s strategy. He writes another memo, threatens to quit (“and if his own departure would help put it right, he was more than willing to go”), and watches helplessly as Hart loses. On to Illinois: Caddell persuades Hart to put ads on television attacking Mondale’s ally Edward Vrdolyak, the alderman, and “the impact, in Caddell’s polling, was electric; Hart jumped to an 11-point lead in twenty-four hours.” (Mondale’s pollster says the eleven-point lead showed up in his polls before the anti-Vrdolyak ads ran.) Hart, who just won’t listen, orders the ads taken off the air, and in the ensuing confusion instantly drops twenty points.
New York? “His major contribution in New York had been some tough negative spots tying Mondale to Carter. They had helped Hart close the gap from 18 points to 1 in Caddell’s polling on the weekend before the primary, whereupon somebody pulled them off the air without asking Caddell.” In Pennsylvania, Hart is again “unresponsive to direction,” and “by the end, Caddell had given up and gone home to wait for the phone to ring,” so of course it’s not his fault that Hart loses. He does, however, come back in time to engineer Hart’s victory in Ohio (“Caddell & Company put together a strategy . . . and Hart executed it with rare skill. . . . His campaign was back in sync for the first time in weeks. His speeches had bite again. . . .”)
Then, incredibly, Caddell begins working for Mondale, having wooed him with a gloomy memo while still working for Hart. (Back in 1979 Elizabeth Drew, of The New Yorker, reported that Mondale found the Caddell memo that triggered Carter’s retreat to Camp David “silly and sophomoric”; early in 1984 the talk in Washington was that Caddell was still fuming at Mondale for this insult.) Several Caddell memos, Caddell-engineered Mondale surges, and a contemplated Caddell resignation later, the election is over.
In the midst of all of Caddell’s pouting and self-dramatizing, there does seem to be a good long-range feeling for politics, but Goldman and Fuller’s method dictates that they take all of him, not just the good parts. They present his inside machinations as the real meat of the 1984 campaign and give his tantrums the same weight as his insights. It’s hard to imagine anything he could say that Goldman and Fuller wouldn’t take at face value. At one point, without irony, they report that Caddell was angry because there were many people at a meeting, “any one of whom might leak the story to the press”; later, during the Mondale campaign, they say, “Caddell was going to be gone after election day, win or lose.” Fat chance.
It isn’t as if only Caddell gets this treatment either. Every source is accorded admiration and a suspension of the journalist’s normal skepticism. John Reilly, a Mondale aide, is “a man of keen wit and earthy humor.” Robert Shrum, an aide to Edward Kennedy, is “a brilliant advocate” whose claim to his boss that he can win 408 electoral votes in 1984 Goldman and Fuller report with a straight face. Goldman and Fuller’s sources don’t make mistakes, they discover them, as in “the warning signals troubled Mike Ford,” or “as Spence, the Texas adman who did Mondale’s media, saw with sharpening concern.”If there is a conflict between the views of different sources—Mondale’s aides think he’s burdened with Geraldine Ferraro, Ferraro’s aides think she’s burdened with Mondale—then the book just cheerfully reports each version in the same omniscient voice.
Goldman and Fuller’s great reportorial coup is exactly in the vein of savvy memos from a second-level political pro, only the pro is Richard Nixon. (Germond and Witcover have the outlines of Nixon’s role in their book, which seems to prove that Nixon, like the other pros, talked intentionally and self-interestedly, in order to burnish his reputation as a political sage so that he’d be brought into the next campaign.) Again, too much is made of Nixon’s sagacity. Is it really remarkable that after all these years he knows how many electoral votes Ohio has? But a few glimpses of him are irresistible—summoning a couple of Reagan aides to his aerie in New Jersey to offer his advice over five bottles of wine, one from each year he ran for national office, and urging the Reagan campaign to “carpet-bomb” a northern industrial state.
Others among the great don’t come off very well either, which must in part be a reflection of the pros’ tendency to view their clients as dummies. Reagan “sometimes longed to try” to invade Cuba; he does his evening paperwork in front of the television, takes Wednesday afternoons off, and, flying home depressed after the first debate, asks for the funny pages for solace. Mario Cuomo was the Democratic keynote speaker at the convention in part because he asked to be, as a condition of endorsing Mondale in the New York primary; also, though he lobbied hard for Ferraro for Vice President in public, he lobbied hard against her in private. Mondale is a cipher, his passionate liberalism obscured by his extreme reserve, his tactical caution, and his semi-fancy taste in clothing, cigars, and restaurants.
IT ISN’T JUST the appropriation of the pros’ view of the campaign that plagues this book—it’s the appropriation of their whole way of looking at the world. To start with a small but annoying example, the language of national politics, with its tropism toward mixed metaphors and trendy jargon, is Goldman and Fuller’s language too. Their prose is vivid and it moves along, but it’s full of all kinds of detritus: hokey dramatics (“John Reilly stood gazing out at a stunning autumnal sunset,” “Geraldine Ferraro gazed absently out the window of the chartered Learjet,” “Mondale would sit alone in his cabin, gazing absently out the window and into himself”), Anglicisms (“the 1982 by-elections,” “a little offish,” “a bit previous in his ambition”), technicians’ lingo (“the three-man excomm,”“she floated onto the scope,”“it would go into meltdown when the June polls came in”), even song and movie titles (“Glenn was running on empty,” “Jesse Louis Jackson had been the poltergeist of American politics,” “Nixon’s triumph of the will in 1968, after eight years in the wilderness”). One need not fear that references to E.T., Cabbage Patch dolls, Trivial Pursuit, Megatrends, and the G spot might be missing either.
A little further up on the scale of importance, politics’ lack of intellectual depth is on display here too, made more obvious by the allusion-mania that’s sweeping Washington now. Mike Ford, of the Mondale campaign, is quoted as writing “[Reagan] is Winesburg, Ohio. We are Cleveland. . . . Winesburg, of course, never existed.” But it requires barely getting past the cover to discover that Anderson deemed Winesburg “The Book of the Grotesque”; the book represents almost exactly the opposite of Reagan’s view of small-town life. Caddell comes across as an extensively read scholar of military history, but the quotes he flings around issue directly, I believe, from the military-reform leader John Boyd’s standard briefing, not the library. If Goldman and Fuller are less than completely wowed by such references, they don’t let on.
Worst of all, the pros are, and therefore this book is, uninterested in, and in fact quite cynical about, the substance of politics. Richard Darman, now the deputy secretary of the Treasury and then one of the “White House pragmatists” infamous in the conservative movement, turns out to have been the author of Reagan’s line about the Democrats being “so far left they’ve left America.” “He didn’t believe it, but it was something Reagan could plausibly say, and it seemed to Darman important to get it said early—to put this guy Mondale in a coffin as soon as possible,” Goldman and Fuller say. Mondale’s aide Bob Beckel, in a discussion of the deficit, suggests that the campaign should promise to close it simply by collecting delinquent taxes. Told this is impossible, he says, “Who gives a shit? . . . Why don’t we just say, ‘There’s eighty billion dollars in uncollected taxes and we’re going to get seventy billion of it back’?”
Probably Goldman and Fuller know how damning these stories are, though they don’t say so; they just won’t allow themselves to step back from their sources’ world. It’s too bad, because what’s really interesting about this campaign is exactly what the pros don’t care about at all—the forest, not the trees. As Goldman and Fuller themselves say in their foreword (though without delivering the payoff of explanation later), “Deep currents were at play at and beneath the surface of events, currents that were profoundly transfiguring our politics and therefore our lives. Reagan’s triumph . . . signaled the decline and probably the fall of the old order in America—a liberal Democratic order that had governed political life and thought for much of the past half century. . . .”
For many years there was a strong argument political reporters could make to justify their surrender to the tides pulling them into the day-to-day details of campaign strategy: these were in fact what mattered most. The presidential elections of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were seen as essentially non-ideological. When two centrists ran, it was close; when a true believer like Barry Goldwater or George McGovern got into the race, it was a runaway. So the pros’ vantage point was the best one from which to view an election: how well they did their jobs really would determine the outcome. This time, though, it’s very hard to imagine that Mondale might have won even if he had listened to Caddell more. The details seem almost irrelevant, and one hungers for explanations of what national nerve Reagan tapped and Mondale failed to tap (what’s striking in going through the campaign again is how little genuine enthusiasm he engendered all year long). Perhaps political journalists will learn a lesson from 1984 and will broaden the scope of their concerns next time.
This book offers another implicit argument for writing about tactics, which is that to do otherwise would make it impossible to use the narrative form. Indeed, there are a few moments in The Quest for the Presidency where the storytelling really sings though the material is without lasting consequence: Mondale’s delegate-counters whooping as their man goes over the top, Hart meeting with his aides in the bleak early days back in Iowa. What these scenes have in common, though, is that apparently somebody from Newsweek was in the room. One way to write a successful campaign narrative, from the inside, would be somehow to get the material firsthand, rather than relying on the accounts of extremely self-interested sources. Perhaps some future genius of access will figure out a way to do that, but it seems improbable, given that the most tightly controlled campaigns, like Reagan’s, have done so well. Another way to write a successful campaign narrative would be to go outside instead: to lend more depth and drama to the public side of the elections by giving it a context. (We forget now that White devoted a whole chapter, and a good one, to the 1960 census data.) The Quest for the Presidency would have been a much better book if it had overcome the assumption that the inside stuff is where drama— and truth—reposes.