What does it really take?

Has a generation of political reporters and voters been misled about how to best pick the next president?


Michael Scherer
November 26, 2007 7:11PM (UTC)

Shortly after moving to D.C. to try my hand as a political reporter, I heard word that Mark Halperin, the famed arbiter of conventional wisdom at ABC News, had the habit of telling his potential reporter hires to read "What It Takes," Richard Ben Cramer's 1,047-page rendering of the 1988 presidential campaign.

Ever the budding upstart with no job prospects at ABC, I tramped down to the local bookstore and got myself a copy. And what a book it was, a vibrant, rollicking, avalanche ride with the human beings who populate the magnificent, meaningful farce of presidential politics. It was at once a biography of the candidates, an action narrative of the behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow, and a mythical rendering of the democratic process. It was not a perfect book, and it was not a political bible. It was simply the finest rendering of American presidential politics yet accomplished.

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For Halperin, apparently, it was also a passing phase, like a teenage love affair. On Sunday, in the New York Times, Halperin publicly announced his breakup with the book. In a stern Dear John letter, he basically told the world that it was not his fault. The book betrayed him. His argument goes like this: Cramer's central thesis is that potential presidents are best judged by how they handle the rigors of the campaign. Once upon a time, Halperin believed in this. "But now I think I was wrong," Halperin writes. "The 'campaigner equals leader' formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed." So how should campaigns be covered? The newly liberated Halperin puts it this way: "We should examine a candidate's public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance."

Of course, Halperin is right about that. But he is also knocking down a straw man of sorts. "What it Takes" was never written as a guide for voters, or journalists; it was published in 1992, four years after the election, as a novelistic representation of politics. It was necessarily heavy with detail on the personal travails of the campaigners. That was its purpose. But the book was also concerned with "a candidate's public record and full life," two concepts that are difficult to separate from campaigning. Much of the first third of the thing is historical biography.

But all this is beside the point. Books often make lousy long-term lovers, and so it's no surprise that a devoted reader feels burned. What Halperin is really doing is putting front and center a discussion that is worth having: How can campaign reporting be improved? Should stump performance be taken into account by voters and journalists? Does a good campaigner make a good president?

The answer to the last question is the easiest: only sometimes. As Halperin points out, Exhibit A is George W. Bush, who is a disciplined and talented hand-shaker, but a less successful decider-in-chief. For balance's sake, Halperin also mentions Bill Clinton, who also campaigned with more success than he governed, though he governed with more success than the current president.

Now to the harder question: Should voters and journalists downplay a candidate's ability to campaign? To this, I would argue a qualified no. Like it or not, the modern presidential process will always be centered on the campaign. It is an open competition for the hearts and minds of those Americans who choose to pay attention. It is the campaign process that, for better or worse, teaches us about our candidates -- not just where they stand on the issues, but how they compromise their values and how they manage pressure. We know, for instance, that Hillary Clinton is the sort of politician who will plant a question in the audience, get caught and then not apologize. We know that Mitt Romney is the sort of politician who structures his life like a major corporation and sees politics as a marketing problem. We know that Barack Obama is committed to the untested, and perhaps foolhardy, notion that he can move the nation beyond political partisanship. Ben Smith, a campaign blogger at the Politico, put it this way in a post on Sunday: "You can see campaigns as hugely revealing -- of who people surround themselves with, how they manage, how they handle crises and tough questions -- without it following from that that the best campaigner would make the best president."

To that, I think it is worth adding that the campaign performance is hugely important for most voters, for better and worse. The truth is a lot of solid citizens treat politics exactly like they do Us Weekly, peripherally, for five minutes a day when they run the treadmill or sit on the can. They get a sense of what they like or dislike about Britney and Hillary, they laugh about both on late-night TV, and they have too much going on in their lives to spend much time splicing the details of healthcare proposals. This does not mean that they don't also have strong beliefs and policy positions that they hold dear, or that they don't care. It just means that the presentation, the emotional impact of the candidate -- his or her ability to connect, seem normal, make eye contact, work hard -- goes a long way in packaging the policy, in making sense of it all, with a story. If Ronald Reagan looked and sounded like Steve Forbes, we would be living in a different world.

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Does that mean campaign reporting is all defensible? Absolutely not. There is still too much horse race, too many meaningless polls, too much bad writing, too many planted stories, and too much focus on the tit-for-tat combat at the expense of the substantive merits of the candidates. (And, yes, I am sometimes as guilty as anyone.) The irony of this is that Halperin's current project is a lively, must-read news digest at Time.com called "The Page," which reads like a fight card, endlessly chronicling the largely superficial, temporal and vicious back and forth between the campaigns. It's good reading for those who want to follow the campaign moment to moment, but it may be no better than a book at determining who will make the best president. So what? Who ever looked to a book or a Web site to explain how they should vote?

In the meantime, as you mull your own ballot and journalism's failings, let me recommend "What It Takes" for your winter reading list. It's an unmanageably long, wonderfully entertaining riot. And while it may not tell you how to vote or write about politics, it certainly shows you how the process works. And that is certainly enough.


Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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