My campaign and election memories go back to 1960, when I was one of the few who backed John Kennedy at an election night party that my parents were throwing.
The early broadcasts had him winning big (they extrapolated that his gains in heavily Roman Catholic Connecticut would be matched across the mostly Protestant country), and I was too young to stay up for the dramatic conclusion.
Two years later, as a freshman at Harvard, I went into Boston and saw a fresh-faced Edward Kennedy on the night of his Senate primary victory. In 1965, I ventured to New York to report for the Harvard Crimson on the race for mayor of New York. At John Lindsay’s election night headquarters, I urged the guard to let novelist Norman Mailer into the press and VIP section at the front of the room (maybe not the right judgment).
I have many memories of campaigns, too — of bitterly cold, dark winter mornings as I got into rental cars in Iowa and New Hampshire, and, consulting the maps as I went, drove to the first campaign stops of the day. Of being part of the crowd at the Carpenter Hotel (now an old folks’ home) backing Eugene McCarthy the Saturday night before the 1968 New Hampshire primary, sensing for the first time that he could win (he actually finished second, but he forced Lyndon Johnson out of the race). Of tracking Bill Clinton after Gennifer Flowers went public to jam-packed events in New Hampshire where he established himself as “the comeback kid” (another second-place finish that amounted to a win).
Or of meeting George McGovern’s 22-year-old pollster Pat Caddell in his office in Cambridge in 1972, shortly after the publication of my first Almanac of American Politics. Working with my boss Peter Hart in the 1974 cycle, when our Democratic clients seemed to be winning everywhere. And sitting down with him the week before the 1980 election and, looking at each race, calculating whether Republicans had a chance to win a majority in the Senate.
They did, we concluded, but they wouldn’t, because they would have to win almost all the close races, and that never happens. But it happened in 1980, and again in 1986, and in 2002 and 2006, as well.
In the 1980s, I remember a young Republican backbencher named Newt Gingrich prophesying that the Republicans would win control of the House and explaining just how. He was right, finally, in 1994, but not before being wrong in several previous election cycles.
Campaigns and elections are mysterious things, predictable in many respects but also full of surprises, and never more so than in this wild and woolly cycle. Character plays an ineluctable role, and we come to know pretty well our candidates’ strengths and weaknesses (which are often the same thing: Bill Clinton’s fluency-slipperiness; George W. Bush’s steadfastness-stubbornness).
Yet it’s hard for citizens of a nation with 303 million people to judge the character of candidates most will never get a chance to talk with. We get buyer’s remorse during campaigns and presidencies. Think of our reactions against Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, both Bushes and, at least as to character if not competence, both Clintons.
The classic accounts of American campaigns are Theodore H. White’s four “Making of the President” books, from 1960 to 1972. White was part of a generation of journalists who got their start in World War II and thought their role was to celebrate our nation and our leaders. He was a fine reporter who did not ignore practical and even tawdry politics, but his tone was uplifting. His winning candidates were fine and noble, his losers decent though limited.
After Watergate, White felt betrayed by Nixon and wrote a mea culpa volume. Political journalism took a turn toward exposure rather than celebration, toward cynicism rather than awe.
But none of the fine campaign books written since have sold in anything like the numbers of White’s volumes. Cynicism prevails but doesn’t sell. Ronald Reagan, who was of Teddy White’s generation, and who voted for 12 winning presidential candidates and only four losers in his active adult life, knew about the tawdry things yet believed there was something noble about our politics. Maybe we should feel that way, too. After all these years, I think I do.