Writing History Without the Soundtrack

Double DownTwo recent and widely reviewed political books are clear reminders of just how frail our civil life has become. Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (Penguin, 2013) and This Town by Mark Leibovich (Penguin, 2013) offer riveting but off-putting accounts of the twin challenges of winning national elections and taking on the responsibilities of governing. Leibovich focuses on the unique customs of high level politicos who move back and forth between K Street offices and various high-level federal jobs. Halperin and Heilemann have provided a re-election sequel to their account of the 2008 campaign, Game Change. Reviewers have rightly praised both books for their thorough research and breezy readability. These writers have listened to their sources, and are good at weaving interviews into compelling stories. In both cases it’s clear that they have done about as much as a reporter can do using “background” rules (sources remain mostly unidentified) to flesh out their narratives. Those who talked wanted to be a part of the record, even though the dominant impression is of political elites infatuated with the intricacies of political strategy. Members of the Washington pundit class are nothing if not addicted game-players.

Even so, anyone using these books as snapshots of our recent history is bound to be struck by how much our national affairs journalism continues to be dominated by narratives that tell rather than show. As a campaign history, Double Down is especially notable for how little space is given to what Barack Obama and Mitt Romney actually said in the sprawling campaign of 2012. Direct quotes come infrequently, and then as just a few select words from much longer speeches. Statements by the candidates—even ones billed as “major” policy addresses—are either ignored or used to illustrate an awkward gaffe. These books dwell on moments when the candidates made comments that violated some strategic goal the campaign team had fashioned for a given day.

So we learn that the GOP challenger was prepared to give “a major economic address” in Detroit, partly to address accusations that had dogged him that he didn’t care about the auto industry. But the reporting in Double Down never really gets to the speech. For this and many other similar events it is preoccupied with backstories about botched planning and advance work. The authors duly note that the setting in a mostly empty stadium was an advance-planner’s nightmare. In addition, Romney was apparently tone-deaf to what his words would mean:

The drafting of the speech had been a replay of CPAC, only worse. The version Romney saw that morning was such a mess, it lacked any mention of the auto  industry. . . .With no time for a run-through, he took the stage and opened  with an ab-lib. “This feels good, being back in Michigan,” he said. “I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually.” (e-location, 4510)

The deeper implication of this example—that Romney had nothing to offer but some ill-considered pandering to the crowd—contributes to a book that is less than a history than one long paraphrase. We get to hear nothing more of this and many other addresses. The equivalent in non-fiction film would be an account where the narrator never pauses long enough to actually hear what the subjects of the film are actually saying.

This kind of “strategy” writing emphasizes the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of political agents as they jockey for favorable position within a power structure. Tactical mastery is suggested in reporting about favorable poll numbers for a candidate or cause, or a perfect one-liner as a pivot out of a tight spot, or a media “buy” that leaves another candidate without time to reach tv viewers firmly locked to their sofas. A given moment has “winners” who press their advantages on “losers”—usually by having more money, better access, or news of a favorable poll . The lesser candidate is relegated to a dead corner on the game board.

Revealingly, in their own 1992 study, Spiral of Cynicism, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Cappela confirmed that about 67% of all political broadcast and print stories tilted toward strategy reporting. Stories about the strategic intentions of a candidate are easier to write than accounts explaining what a candidate thinks. Though lamented by journalism think tanks and critics, no one believes this preference for strategy over policy has changed much in the intervening years.

I’d like to be able to say that it was different when Theodore White was writing his influential campaign volumes in the 1960s. White’s Making of the President series is a benchmark for the kinds of exhaustive campaign recapitulations that now regularly show up in bookstores a few months after an election. But he was also immersed in long back-story chronologies, though he gave the campaign process a greater sense of complexity. The irony is that this kind of reporting tends to turn our leaders into relatively minor players in sprawling multicharacter dramas of palace intrigue. Even Shakespeare sensed the appeal in making politics less about ideas than the daily struggles of the powerful. His plays are filled with kings and courtiers struggling to master the machinery of their own re-invention.

All of this suggests and perhaps contributes to the widespread suspicion that public discourse is easily dismissed. But in response to the view that “rhetoric” deserves the “mere” that is frequently placed in front of it, there is an easy retort: What would we substitute in its place? If we wish to enrich our understanding of the process, how can it possibly help to render mute the principals who seek to lead? Even if they come heavily discounted by their receivers, their words truly matter.

Gary C. Woodward