By Scott Porch
Before Richard Ben Cramer and What It Takes, before John Heilemann and Mark Halperin and Game Change, before Joe McGinnis and The Selling of the President 1968 and even before Hunter S. Thompson and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, there was Teddy White and The Making of the President 1960. This one seminal book launched a hundred imitators and reshaped American politics, transforming the modern narrative of our campaigns from simple day-to-day stories filed by newspaper reporters and wire-service hacks to grand, sweeping historical dramas filled with heroes and villains, failures and foibles, triumphs and defeats. It won the Pulitzer Prize—a rarity for any book on electoral politics—and has sold an incredible 4 million-plus copies.
The conventional wisdom of 1960 held that a candidate’s campaign began when he announced he was running and that reporters should follow him from stop to stop, dutifully recording all that was said and how the crowds responded. Instead, White covered campaigns with a novelist’s eye, writing about what candidates ate and drank (“his first drink of the day, a Daiquiri”), the smell in the rooms they occupied (“The hall stank of sweat and stale tobacco”), even the amount of shine on their footwear (“of his two shoes, one was glossily polished as usual—the other scuffed and dirty”). He covered the inside-campaign dynamics: the strategy meetings, the internal polling, the publicity and marketing efforts. He recorded body language, the weather, the shifting moods of the candidates—and also of their aides, wives and families. He added sociological insight: Hyannis Port was not just the location of the Kennedy family compound but a place “molded in the best and simplest of the old New England manner, its homes less ostentatious and snugger in style than the summer homes of the Long Island Hamptons.” The Kennedys, White noted, had been “the first of the Irish to invade its quiet.”
“I read parts of it every four years,” says Dan Balz, a longtime political reporter for the Washington Post who wrote books about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “I constantly go back to it—both to remind myself of the ambition of that book and also because it’s just a pleasure to read.” After The Making of the President 1960, news editors would routinely warn their reporters not to get beaten by White in a book appearing months after the election was over. It was the book that, to a large extent, created the drive for the “scooplet,” the attention to the small scene details that has transformed workaday trail reporting into dramatic narrative writing.
While he was writing The Making of the President 1960, however, White wasn’t sure anyone would want to read a book about a long-finished campaign—and much of it about the guy who lost. A genre that is so much in demand today, one that often makes the New York Times best-seller lists and spawns HBO movies starring Julianne Moore and Ed Harris, seemed far from a sure thing. And White didn’t seem like a journalist ready to transform presidential politics. He had spent his early professional life reporting in China during World War II and in Europe chronicling the Marshall Plan. Then he had taken up writing fiction.