A 'Fear and Loathing' for the '08 Campaign

No book goes out of date faster than a nonfiction account of a presidential campaign, right? Not really, says journalist Matt Bai, who argues that the best political campaign books, like Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, have plenty to say about the '08 White House race.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Okay, we're going to shift gears. We're going to talk campaign books now. Not the ones that are being feverishly written at this very moment by caffeine-fueled reporters spending late nights at the Days Inn in Cedar Rapids.

No, we're going to talk about the old campaign books, the ones you might see in the $2 box at your local used bookstore, all yellowed and dog-eared. Why would anyone want to read a book about a political campaign that happened 20-odd years ago? Well, you'd be surprised.

At least one such book, an account of the Dukakis-Bush race in 1988, is getting a lot of attention this season. My next guest can explain why.

Matt Bai writes for the New York Times Magazine and is the author of "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics," which is out this year. He also wrote a recent piece in the New York Times book review, extolling the virtues of Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" and other classic campaign books.

Matt, how's it going?

Mr. MATT BAI (Contributing Writer, The New York Times; Author, "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics"): It's all right, guys. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Hey, thanks for being here.

Mr. BAI: Two dollar bargaining bins, that's a very depressing (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Hey, there are a lots of little gems you can find in it. It's not necessarily pejorative.

Mr. BAI: No, it's only for us writers that it hurts a little.

MARTIN: It hurts?

STEWART: Well, maybe not.

MARTIN: It hurts your bottom line a little bit, probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. So I have to admit. I have to just cop at the beginning. I've never read "What It Takes."

Mr. BAI: Oh, no. No one has.

MARTIN: Maybe Alison has.

STEWART: I have, because I'm a dork.

MARTIN: She's a big, huge political nerd.

STEWART: But it was a long time ago.

MARTIN: But…

Mr. BAI: Go get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So why - it's huge. It's a - it's over a thousand pages.

Mr. BAI: And tiny print.

MARTIN: Oh, and it was about…

Mr. BAI: Not like these new books with the big margins.

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And this was about Bush-Dukakis '88. I mean, honestly, the only thing I remember about this is the unfortunate image of Dukakis in that tank.

Mr. BAI: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, what was so interesting about this, and what was so interesting about Cramer's take on it?

Mr. BAI: Well it's really, you know, it's really about the primary. So it's about, you know, there's about six candidates who are profiled. But, you know, "What it Takes" was really the first modern campaign book to delve very deeply into who the people were who run for president. Until then, campaign books had been largely about the process - the traveling on the - and after that, frankly, the traveling on the bus, the things you have to do with pollsters and ads, pulling back the curtain on the process - which, of course, became, over time, the entirety of our political coverage, unfortunately, really - not the entirety, but the very large majority.

But what Cramer said was, you know, what's really important here are the character of these people. Who are these people? Why do we believe in them? And he spent years toiling in their neighborhood, their schools, their families. I mean, unbelievable amounts of reporting, and ultimately getting a lot of access to them. And really, he tried to write it from inside their heads. That it was very influential to my generation, for the younger generation of political writers who saw in it a potential to make politics sort of three-dimensional and lively and relevant.

And unfortunately, I think a lot of people took the wrong lesson from that book, which was that, you know, character is all that matters, and figuring out whether people are hypocrites or what their scandals are or what their foibles are. And I think Cramer was talking about something much deeper, which are the forces that shape people throughout their lives that we overlook in our obsession with the tactics of politics.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Now this is a - you say that this was a new technique. I feel - like now, we see a lot of this. I've read, you know, ad nauseam about Hillary's years at Wellesley and Obama's youth in Indonesia, et cetera. Is this something now that everybody does?

Mr. BAI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Everyone feels like you have to go back and talk to the second-grade teacher?

Mr. BAI: Yeah. We see a lot of it, and we see a lot of it that's not all that good, frankly. And this was, you know, I talk about this in the essay, the effect of, sort of, Cramer's work, which is to have inspired a generation to go out and find out who personally and emotionally these candidates were, but to do it either, not that thoroughly or not with the same human acuity. And so we did get, you know, years and years of journalism, as you describe it, just, you know, sort of reliving, rehashing parts of people's lives and a lot of got-you journalism, but not a lot of understanding.

And what happened is over time, the candidates, getting hip to the notion that people were trying to copy Cramer, but not doing it especially well or with a especially good intentions, really shut themselves off and decided, to a large extent, that it wasn't worth their time to get into this deep psychoanalytical stuff, because it wasn't done all that well.

And ultimately, we lost a lot of access. And so now, it's almost impossible to do that kind of journalism. Yeah, we talk about everybody's early years and their lives. But you really - it's a forensic study. It's going through the records rather than living with the people, because our access has been extremely curtailed to all politicians in public life, and particularly, the presidential candidates.

MARTIN: So it's about finding out what shapes these peoples' decision-making processes and what their point of view is. And that's influenced by the people who shaped them.

Mr. BAI: Yes. And I think it's - and I think it's an important thing to know. It's not the only thing we need to know. Those policies are important. But these things are all - these things are intertwined. And, you know, I think part of what we lost is to do this with a really open mind and with good intentions, because there are some extraordinary things that go into making the kind of leader who can compete seriously for president of the United States.

It takes some extraordinary qualities. And most of these people who run are good people, and most of them go through, you know, tremendous learning processes and adversities and other things to get there. And we tend to look at it with a very jaundiced view, and Cramer did not. He was not a lifetime political reporter. And he looked at these people, and he gave them the benefit of the doubt. He looked at them as humans, and I think that's what's largely missing from the way we tried to piece together these personalities.

MARTIN: Now quickly, with the time we've got left, you do have a list - there are some others. Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail."

Mr. BAI: Terrific book. Yeah, I mean, "Fear and Loathing" happened…

MARTIN: Terrific book. What lessons can we glean from this? How do we take that book and apply it '08?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAI: Well a lot of people would have answers to that. "Fear and Loathing" was really the, you know, Thompson at the top of his game. And it really was a sort of searing indictment of the Nixon presidency and of the nation's politics at the time. It was really a howl of disdain and fear. And it was really - it was - it's just a tremendous easy read that sort of captures a moment.

But all these books, if they're successful, capture a particular moment. "The Selling of The President in 1968" is another that captured a particular moment when television was just beginning to become this huge focus in politics. And that's what, you know, great campaign books did, at their best, is they captured a moment of change, and Cramer did the same thing - a moment when personality and celebrity were becoming so critical in American culture. We really haven't had that in many years, and I think that's because it's become so hard to cover politics with the kind of depth that those writers did.

MARTIN: Well, Matt Bai, thank you so much. You write for the New York Times magazine, and you're the author of "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics," which is out this year. Thanks for being with us. We'll dust off those copies.

Mr. BAI: It's out right now.

MARTIN: It's out right now. We'll go get it. Thank you so much.

Mr. BAI: I appreciate it. Thanks.

STEWART: He just gave us a reading list. I'm going to be busy until past the Iowa caucus.

MARTIN: I know, that was exciting.

STEWART: Hey, coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, all you "Battlestar Galactica" fans, we know you're out there. Resident BPP super fan producer Matt Martinez and I, we spoke to the executive producer of "BSG." Stick around for that conversation coming up in just about 90 seconds, plus a little more.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.