The year after a presidential campaign: almost as good as the thing itself

Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the
Future of Elections in America
by Dan Balz
My heart was happy
when I saw that it’s already time for the presidential election recap books to
begin appearing.

Me and Joe — we go way back

I know. It’s sick.

The thing is, this
book—and heck, this election—had a lot to live up to. Because my benchmark for
this type of thing is the spectacular Game Change: Obama and the Clintons,McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.
That 2008 election
was probably the best I’ll ever see, and Heilemann’s and Halperin’s take on it
was so blasted fun to read.
So Collision 2012 had its work cut out for
it. And, given the material offered by 2012, it was unlikely to reach the level
of bliss-inducement offered by Game
Change
. And, sure enough, it just didn’t get there. But it wasn’t the fault
of the author; the 2012 election just didn’t get as thrilling as 2008, and the
cast of characters was way less quirky. We can blame history, guys.  
There were moments
when this book almost seemed dry. But then, I was glad about its serious
approach to the topic, once I began reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town—because I needed to cut his
snark with some solemnity. I craved hard data about election returns, and Collision 2012 offered it up. 
These two
books actually pair quite well, if you’re into this kind of thing.
Not that Collision 2012
is all seriousness. Call me shallow, but the thing I’ll most remember is this:
On the morning of election day, Mitt Romney cleaned out the refrigerator
because it was trash day. I find that completely endearing.
This book offered some great behind-the-scenes coverage of the campaigns, but I just kept thinking:
2012 was no 2008. And without the zippy material, the story just kind of loses its oomph. 

There you have it: the technical analysis from a poli sci major — that election cycle lacked oomph. 

Nevertheless, I’m on the waiting list for Halperin and Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012. (Due out November 5! [I confess: my stomach just did a little flip of anticipatory joy. I know: sick.])

Watergate: more truths emerge…

Leak: Why Mark
Felt Became Deep Throat
by Max Holland
So yeah. We all now know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.
But the question remains: Why’d he do it?
There’ve been various theories: he was appalled at Nixon’s
flagrant snubbing of the law; he was ticked because Nixon didn’t name him
director of the FBI after Hoover’s
death; he didn’t like Nixon’s interference with FBI business; he thought it was
the right thing to do.
Well, Holland
posits that Felt did all that leaking because he was attempting to discredit
his rivals for the top job at the FBI. He makes quite a good case for this
argument.
So, in addition to the new analysis of Felt’s motivation, here are
the facts I learned that completely blew my mind:
– Felt was leaking not only to Woodward, but also to Sandy Smith
at Time. Who knew?!
– Nixon knew Felt was the source of the leaks by late 1972. Again…
(say it with me now) Who knew?!  And Nixon didn’t dare fire him, lest Felt
spill even more secrets. (Oh what a tangled web we weave, Mr. Nixon.)
– Robert Redford suggested to Woodstein the style of All the President’s Men: that the book
be the story of how they discovered
the truth, rather than simply what they
discovered. The result: a literary masterpiece.
The dauntless Unruly one, in the
*actual parking garage where
Woodward and Deep Throat met*
Each man—Woodward and Felt—was, of course, using the other for his
own purposes. But it’s never before been so baldy stated as it is in this book.
The thing I find the most haunting, though, is this: 
“In 2002,
Roger L. Depue, the former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, studied
the depiction of Deep Throat in All the
President’s Men
for NBC’s Dateline program.
Depue concluded from the way Woodward wrote about Felt that he had very mixed
feelings toward the man… ‘I detected that not only was Felt an angry man,’
Depue said, ‘but that Woodward didn’t particularly like him. It seemed like
more of a utilitarian relationship…. There wasn’t much mutual respect there.’”
(p. 157)
For some reason, this makes me feel kind of sad. The romance is
all shot to hell, you know?
I feel like I’ve finished this book, only to find myself sadder
and wiser. I’ve kinda had enough of that for a while.
P.S. Hey! You, too, can do the self-guided Watergate tour. I highly recommend it. 

Me & LBJ

Indomitable Will:
LBJ in the Presidency
by Mark K. Updegrove
LBJ, signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill
(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)
OK, first: the author of this book has one of the coolest jobs in
the world. He’s the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum (a
place I want to visit so bad it hurts).
And he’s put together a terrific book.
I guess this style of book is sometimes called an oral biography
(which is such an unfortunate
phrase), but I think in this case it’s not an accurate description, because it
also involves print sources. This one is a mix of snippets from interviews,
memoirs, and biographies, all strung together to create a cohesive narrative.*
So, on one page, for example, we have a section from an LBJ
interview, followed by an excerpt from a Barry Goldwater interview, then a
paragraph from a book quoting Warren Rogers (bureau chief for Hearst
Newspapers), followed by a Ted Kennedy interview snippet—all dealing with the
complex relationship between LBJ and the Kennedy family.
This style of book—you can pick it up and read a little bit, and
then put it down, knowing that you can dive right back in again where you left
off. (Some books require a running start to resume reading them; this kind
doesn’t.) So for a reader who’s feeling scattered, I highly recommend this
format.
And with this book, I experienced that thing that happens with
biographies: the feeling of dread as I reached the end of the book—because the
person dies. And at the end of this
book, I was blinking back tears. Of course, I already knew LBJ has the power to make me weepy. 
And it happened again with this book. Here’s how:
After leaving the presidency, LBJ spoke of a story he’d been told
by one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, who said that he went into his backyard and
looked up at the moon and wondered if could be true that he had really been
there. LBJ said he’d told that story to some friends and said, “Perhaps… the
time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the power and
splendor of the presidency and find it hard to believe I had actually been
there.” Of the first night back on his ranch, he said, “But on this night I
knew I had been there. And I knew that I had given it everything that was in
me.” (p. 322)
Reading these words (that last part!) just a few pages before the
end of the book, and then reading the final words about LBJ being buried near
an oak tree on his ranch—it just did me in.
[Let’s pause, as I collect myself…                      Hang on, it’ll be just a moment…
All right. Now we may proceed.]
This portrait of LBJ paints out a few of the unpleasantnesses, and
as long as a person recognizes that, I think it’s OK. But there also are some
surprises here, and one of the big ones (BIG!) is that LBJ made the transfer of
power (from himself to Nixon) go very smoothly. He was generous. In the words
of Walt Rostow: “[The transition] was a magnificent performance to observe. But
I think it goes back to a strand in President Johnson that I think is important
and hasn’t been caught much, which is that he is a man of government—politics.”
(p. 315) 
A simply wonderful look at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential years,
told by those who were there.
*Some other fine examples of this style of book:
Live from New York: An Uncensored
History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests
by
Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
Truman Capote: In
Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His
Turbulent Career
by George Plimpton

Covering the campaign, 1972-style

The Boys on the
Bus* 
by Timothy Crouse
Sometimes I wonder how certain books get forgotten/overlooked/lost
to history.
This book is a perfect example of a book we don’t hear about, but
really should.
The only reason I know of its existence is that the brilliant and
witty William McKeen mentioned it in his audio lecture series about literary journalism
I suppose part of the reason we don’t still talk about this book
is that Timothy Crouse was overshadowed by his much more audacious colleague at
Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson. (Seriously:
how could you not be overshadowed
that that guy?)
But I gotta tell you: The
Boys on the Bus
is a terrific piece of work. It captures the 1972
presidential campaign season and the journalists who
covered it. (Sure, go ahead: Groan if you like. But 1972 is the year that
brought us Watergate, guys. It was a zippy little year!)
And in Crouse’s hands (actually, in his words), it comes to life. It’s the story about the story, and it is excellent. (And Crouse’s language is so delightful, I’m gonna quote lots of it.)

So we hear about Richard Nixon (and his much-despised press
secretary Ron Ziegler), and we hear about George McGovern. (“Since Richard
Nixon was declining nearly all invitations to share the pleasure of his company
with the electorate, the only real Presidential campaign belonged to George
McGovern.” [p. 320])

But the journalists are really the ones in the spotlight in this
book. And they are a weird and wonderful crew.
Here’s just one example: “Every so often in the course of the fall
campaign, Jules Witcover appeared at a White House briefing in his black,
funereal raincoat, looking like a cut-rate version of the bad fairy.” (p. 243)
Or, when Crouse gives a sense of life on the press bus: “It was the
kind of bus to which most bus-fanciers would give three stars—the windows were
tinted and there was a toilet in the rear, but the seats did not recline. The
time was 7:30 A.M. and two-thirds of the seats were already filled with silent
and bleary-eyed reporters who looked as cheerful as a Georgia chain
gang on its way to a new roadbed.” (pp. 11-12)
(OK. Every time I read that last bit, I laugh.)
And shortly after the 1972 election, Crouse met Woodward and
Bernstein at the dining room of the Hay-Adams hotel and talked with them about
their Watergate reporting. That chapter of the book allows us to be a fly on
the wall during their conversation, and really: what could be better than
that? 
Well, maybe this, about the great Merriman Smith:
“His sprints to the phone booth were legendary. He trampled
anything or anyone in his way; he once slipped and dislocated a shoulder on the
way to the phone but dictated for an hour before passing out from the pain.”
(pp. 196-197) 

I tell you: they don’t make reporters like they used to. 

It’s a crying shame.
This book is an entertaining look at some one-of-a-kind old-school
journalists.
* Yeah. There were very few “girls” on the bus in those days. And it was no picnic for those who were there. Here’s an example of what Sarah McClendon of the North American Newspaper Alliance had to endure: 
“But the men still tittered whenever Sarah McClendon asked a question, and Ziegler still treated her as if she were a wino who had wandered in off the street (although he was always very sweet to her after the briefing, which only disgusted her more).” (p. 210) We’ve come a long way, baby. 
For more on women (fighting sexism) in journalism, try Nan Robertson’s excellent The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times

Happy humming

Tension City: Inside the Presidential
Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
by
Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer. I really like this guy. 

And since this book of his is
about presidential debates (one of my most favorite things upon this earth),
we’d really be expecting that I’d be over the moon about it.

Well, guys, I liked this book just fine. But for me, it didn’t
really take off until the very end. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

The bulk of the book analyzes the debates from 1960 to 2008. And
since Lehrer moderated several of those debates, he can provide some really
great insight. 

One of the things that surprised me is that the moderator gets
all jittery before the debate, too. I’d always thought of the candidates being
all keyed up before a debate, but it turns out the moderators are also “shaking
like a leaf,” as Bob Schieffer put it.

So that stuff’s all
interesting enough, but it’s the book’s final chapter that really sings. It’s a
wonderfully congenial treatise on the importance of both freedom of speech/press
and civility in public discourse. (I liked it so much, I read it twice.)

Here’re some
beautiful sentences:

“The more voices
and views, the better. Always, the better. I do not want anybody shut up. The
addition of new and varied and multiple voices in the public mix is terrific
for our democracy. I am, in fact, a purist on the First Amendment guarantees of
everyone’s right to speak, no matter how disagreeable or ridiculous the words
may be.
But.
The First Amendment
is about a right, not a requirement. It says nothing about requiring people to attack or inflame others to get ratings or to
be notice, or to take positions only for votes or to insult people for
entertainment value.” (p. 194)

And here, even more
succinctly: “… I believe as a moderator and as a citizen in the virtue of civil discourse as strongly as
I believe in the right to uncivil
discourse.” (p. 198)

Truly. I’d like to
just shake that man’s hand. 

Thank you, Mr. Hill

Mrs. Kennedy and
Me
by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
I just read a book I still can’t believe got written.
Clint Hill was one of the Secret Service agents assigned to
Jacqueline Kennedy. He’s the agent who ran up and jumped onto the car after the
shots were fired in Dealey
Plaza and threw himself
on top of the Kennedys.
And having seen a video of his 60 Minutes interview from the ’70s, I thought it highly unlikely
that he’d ever write a book, not only because of the code of silence, but because
it was clear that he had nearly been destroyed by the events of November 22,
1963.

The thing is, Hill is the only agent who hurled himself into
harm’s way that day—running after the car and launching himself into it. Yet he
held himself responsible for years for not reacting more quickly (more quickly
than his 2-second response time) so
that he could have prevented the assassination of the president.

I’m grateful to him — for his devotion to his work, and also for having written this book. And thankfully for him, it sounds (from the Acknowledgments) like
writing it helped Hill deal with the aftermath of the tragedy (though only after
decades of torment).

So all of that is horribly somber and devastating stuff, but this
book has a lightness about it, right up to the part where things got horrible.

This is the story of a working relationship that neither party
expected to be a positive experience. Yet each person ended up adoring the
other.

Hill had been on Eisenhower’s detail, so to him, it felt like a
demotion when he was assigned to the security detail for the new First Lady. He
anticipated little more than antiques shopping and the ballet.

For Mrs. Kennedy’s part, she dreaded the omnipresence of the
Secret Service. But in time, as she told Hill, she found that the Secret
Service agents were her best allies in trying to create a normal life for
herself and her children.

And she and Hill clearly understood one another, to the point that
she had him promoted to be the senior agent responsible for her protection; he
handled things the way she wished for them to be handled.

That’s Clint Hill, over Jacqueline Kennedy’s right shoulder (just behind the nurse’s hat). 
(Photo
credit: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential
Library and Museum)   


The fascinating thing about their relationship is that they spent
more time together than they spent with their own spouses. They referred to one
another as “Mrs. Kennedy” and “Mr. Hill,” but it’s clear that there was a
closeness, a respect, and an understanding that they shared.

Much of the book consists of a behind-the-scenes look at the
events in Mrs. Kennedy’s life during the White House years. There are photos
sprinkled through the book, many of them with Hill standing near Mrs. Kennedy
in his role as protector.

The thing I did not
expect was to cry while reading this book. Which makes me realize: I don’t
think I’ve ever cried over Kennedy’s death before—even though he’s my favorite
of all the presidents. It’s a weird thing. I think it must be because I was
born after his assassination, so it was always just an accepted part of my
world.

But when I read Clint Hill’s description of the days after JFK’s
death, there were sentences that tore me apart. (The man has been dead all my
life, yet still, I mourn. It’s a strange thing, that. But stranger, perhaps,
that it never happened before.) In this case, it was the devastation
experienced by those left behind that really got me.

I’m just so grateful Clint Hill broke his silence. He was a key
participant in a major event in American history, and it makes me feel relieved
that his story now has been shared in a way that ensures that it will be
preserved and remembered. 

That’s one “John” (aka “Don’t call me John-John”)

Fairy Tale
Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Loss
by
Rosemarie Terenzio
I’m sufficiently shameless that I’m not embarrassed for you to
know I read this book and loved it.
(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum)
The Kennedy obsession, yes, includes The Children.
So a book by JFK Jr’s assistant was irresistible. Rosemarie
Terenzio worked for John Kennedy, Jr., for 5 years, and she wasn’t afraid to
mouth off to him. That’s kind of awesome, you know?
But it’s also clear that she adored him. (Not in that way. She also was a good friend of
his wife Carolyn.)
She doesn’t completely sugarcoat his persona, though. Some of the
stories show him acting entitled, short-tempered, and testy. So, yeah, the guy
was human.
There are also some really nice things about him, though: He said
some kind and wise things to her when she went through difficult times. And he
lent her his house in Hyannis
for her annual vacation. (And Provi, who had been Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal
assistant, was there at the house! Making daiquiris! Seriously, how crazy is
that?)
The thing I didn’t expect—and was happily surprised by—is that
Rosemarie’s own story is interesting in itself. She describes her surprise at
being a girl from the Bronx who somehow ended up working for one of the world’s
most recognizable men—and the challenges (and perks) that involved. And she
writes about the depression she experienced after Kennedy’s death, when her job
ended and she felt aimless. Pretty horrible stuff.
I read this book immediately after finishing Concierge Confidential, which was a nice pairing. Both, books about
people serving the rich and privileged.
Only with this book, there’s also a side of George, one of the best magazines ever. Doggone it that it folded.
A well-told story of a really unusual work life. 

Yup, he’s still my favorite

Jack Kennedy:
Elusive Hero
by Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews, along with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are
heavily responsible for that political science degree of mine. Matthews’ Hardball and Woodstein’s All the President’s Men were too good
to resist. I needed more.
It’s been a year or two since that first semester of college
[understatement, anyone?], and I’m still hooked on this stuff.
So this new book, by Matthews, about my favorite president (even
though yes, I know: Lincoln
was nobler) was beyond irresistible.
It’s a glowing portrait of JFK, and I’m OK with that. 

Here’s a
sense of Matthews’ take: “In searching for Jack Kennedy, I found a fighting
prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world
he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than
he ever wished us to know.” (p. 11)

Given that I’m already a Kennedyophile, those two sentences nearly
did me in.  
Plus, Matthews has a fine writing style that flows right along,
and you gotta like that.
Also, it was a comfort to me to read the old story* again. I’ve
known the basics of JFK’s life story since way back when I was still playing
with Barbies (yeah, so 4th grade was maybe a little old for dolls,
but hey). Back in those days, once I’d planted the Barbies in their dream
house, I’d head for the presidential and First Lady biographies. And JFK was my
fave back then, too.
So, yeah, I know the bio. Boyhood illnesses and bookishness:
check. PT-109: check. Malaria and back surgeries: check. “Irish Mafia”: check.
So, I gotta say, there wasn’t too much new information here.
But—the thing that sets this book apart is that Matthews incorporates snippets
of interviews and memoirs of those who knew Kennedy well, and that makes it
feel very fresh and somehow current.
So if you’re in the mood for an adoring biography of JFK, this book’s
probably gonna do it for you.

*
OK. Hymn flashback here. The phrase “the old, old story” kept running through
my head while I was reading this book, which launched my brain’s secret stereo
into this fine number imprinted on me during my younger years. It’s a grand old hymn that really demands
to be belted out with some gusto. In keeping with the 4th grade
Barbie recollections, we’re going to hear it from the Oak Ridge Boys. Hello¸early ’80s!

(But guys? I am not suggesting that we compare JFK to Jesus. That really doesn’t work.)

Merry Christmas! Let’s talk about the Nixons…

Mrs. Nixon by
Ann Beattie
If you like your books to be all one thing, cut and dried (perfectly
fictional, or perfectly nonfictional), then this book will drive you straight
up the wall.
For the rest of us, who maybe are intrigued by the occasional
mash-up: Splendor!
(Though. If I owned a copy of this book, I’d have to put it in
nonfiction for 6 months of the year, and then move it to fiction for the
remaining 6 months. There’s a small element of literary/shelving stress here.)
Beattie does some zany stuff in this book, including writing an
entire chapter in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s style, about two characters who haven’t
appeared before in the Nixon narrative. The man is writing a love letter to the
woman. Turns out, we learn at the end of the chapter that the text of the love
letter was the actual text of a letter Richard Nixon wrote to Pat. The rest of
it is all made up, characters and all.
This book is interesting,
guys.
You turn the page, and you don’t know if you’re going to get a
literary interpretation of the short story “The Necklace” or social commentary
in Pat Nixon’s voice or the author’s musings on why she felt drawn to write
about Pat Nixon of all people. (She
even writes a false version of events to explain why she chose this subject.
Then confesses immediately that the previous chapter was A Lie.)
And it all ties together.
There were several moments while reading this book that I gave
thanks to my 18-year-old self, who knew that majoring in English would have
been a bad idea for me. There was just enough literary analysis in this book to
remind me that I just don’t like doing that stuff. (Hello, readers! You ain’t gonna find nothing deep on this here book blog.)
Anyway. Pat Nixon. She’s one of those
so-placid-she’s-nearly-invisible political wives. So that’s actually pretty
intriguing, because you know she was having secret
thoughts
inside that perfectly-coiffed head of hers. So why not have a
novelist imagine what those thoughts were? And also, she was married to Richard Nixon! So there’s some built-in
tragedy there.
I’ll say it again: This book is interesting.
Thanks
to NetGalley and Scribner for the ARC.

She never wrote a memoir, but she did do this…

Jacqueline Kennedy:
Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews with Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr., 1964
(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
It’s a book, it’s an audiobook, it’s one of the coolest things ever.

This is exactly the kind of historic record that I’ve been know to
pray will appear on the scene during
my lifetime. And it’s fabulous.
Arthur Schlesinger was part of JFK’s brain trust, and it sounds
from these recordings, like Jackie was reasonably comfortable with him. At any
rate, she’s rather candid, and there are things she talked about that later she
said she didn’t want to have shared.
Of course, these are the good
things.
Such as: There were kids’ bath toys lined up along the edge of the
bathtub in JFK’s bathroom—the one their visitors to the family quarters would
use—because John, Jr., would hang out in there while his dad was in the tub.
And, of course, when she speaks of her husband, Jackie idealizes
him completely unrealistically. Of course
this is what a wife would do. It was up to her to set the tone for his
legacy. And besides, the man had just been assassinated mere months before. So
of course she’s going to make him sound like a saint.
But, beyond the perfected version of things that she presents, there
are some little glimpses of both of them as real humans, such as when she says
he’d sometimes call her “Kid,” and when she describes how he wept after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. And that he ate breakfast in a
t-shirt and underwear, on a tray in his bedroom.    
These tapes are also completely fascinating as a relic of the-way-(some)-marriages-were.
She provides a very clear view of how she saw her role as a wife, and it’s
old-fashioned-y stuff: Don’t ask your husband about his work day unless he
offers information; Make sure the children are in a good mood when your husband
gets home; First and foremost, provide a comfortable home life for your
husband.
The intimacy of listening to the actual interviews is pretty darn
amazing—of course, there’s her famously breathy voice, but there’s all kinds of
wonderful background noise, too: ice cubes clinking in a glass, cigarettes
being lit, airplanes overhead, and John, Jr., tearing into the room.
This is good enough stuff that probably even the Normal (non-Kennedy-obsessed) out there will
find it worth a listen.
Also—it comes with a book that has helpful footnotes (to remind us
who Douglas Dillon was) and some good photos.

(Coincidence? Or not? Today is the 51st anniversary of John, Jr.’s birth. Just realized that when I looked at the date.)