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Presidential Campaigns – What Everyone Needs to Know

Presidential Campaigns – What Everyone Needs to Know


The October 6, 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal contained Dennis Johnson’s review of five books about presidential campaigns and the candidates which he believed were the best of “what everyone needs to know”. I wholehearted agree with his assessment and this is a summary of his excellent article.

Book one was “Campaign of the Century” by Greg Mitchell in 1992. It did not involve a presidential campaign, but rather a campaign for governor of California in 1934. Upton Sinclair, an avowed socialist, was the Democratic candidate for governor. He was the leader of the “wildly popular End Poverty in California”. Conservatives were alarmed at the mere thought of “a socialist governing the nation’s most volatile state”. The campaign featured the first “planned and coordinated mass-media attack”, long before today’s social-media and TV. Pioneer political consultants Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter designed an attack utilizing “dirty tricks and hilarious stunts”. The Sinclair campaign featured an actor with a Russian accent claiming that Sinclair’s welfare schemes “worked well in Russia.” Republican Frank Merriam won out.

Book two was “Four Hats in the Ring” by Lewis L Gould in 2008. Four hats referred to the 1912 election in which four well known candidates participated: a “sitting” president Republican William Howard Taft; a former president and the Bull Moose candidate, Theodore Roosevelt; a Democrat governor Woodrow Wilson and a reformer candidate Socialist Eugene Debs. Debs won more votes than the Socialists ever had. Wilson was the winner and brought with him the progressive movement and the Republican Party became more conservative. Gould noted: “four distinguished citizens actually sought the presidency in a campaign of serious ideas and elevated discourse.” The outcome attests to why 1912 will remain an election of “historical meaning”.

Book number three was David Pietrusza’s 2011 “1948” which reported on the “exciting and raucous” election between the “loser” Democrats Truman and

Barkley, what many considered the Republican “dream team” of Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry Wallace. Thurmond split away from the Democrat Party over integration issues and Wallace had done the same, but because the Democrat Party was not “liberal enough”. “1948” described Truman as the “underdog who refused to surrender, Dewey as “a presumed victor” who refused to fight and left and right Democrats who deserted their Party. In a monumental upset, Truman was elected President.

Book four covered the historic 1960 presidential campaign featuring Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon. Theodore H. White’s award-winning book “The Making of a President” focused on a “contest of immense intrinsic drama”. During a time when presidential primaries and televised debates were still “novelties”, White described the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries along with a “still-fascinating inside view of the first-ever televised debates, with a bumbling Nixon and telegenic Kennedy”. He described more than just the candidates. He wrote about the advisers, the “hangers-on, Nixon’s fateful 50-state campaign strategy and particularly the nail-biting last days of the race, culminating in Kennedy’s razor-thin 49.7% to 49.6% win”.

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Book five featured the 1988 presidential campaign. “What It Takes: The Way to the White House” by Richard Ben Cramer was written in 1992 His book concentrates “on the personal in its colorful examination of the motives and characters of one set of aspirants to the presidency”- George H. W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, Gary Hart and the rest through the 1988 primaries. It was a spirited campaign won by Bush who was known as the “energizer bunny” who organized all ninety-nine voting precincts in the state of Iowa. He worked every Kiwanis, Moose Lodge, Legion Hall and VFW. He worked chicken barbeques, ladies auctions, cattle barns and farmyards….He held warm little critters” like piglets. Even candidates’ wives were not immune from scrutiny. Kitty Dukakis said she was certain her husband was her “anchor, her rock….….But her? She felt like a fraud.”

What will historians and authors write about the 2020 presidential election?

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