TERRY GROSS, host:
On this July 4, 2011, the presidential campaign of 2012 is in full swing. It didn't always start so early, as is clear in a new three-DVD set, "The Making of the President: The 1960s." The set contains three television documentaries from that time based on a series of books by Theodore H. White.
Our critic-at-large John Powers has just watched the documentaries and has these thoughts about how the race to the White House and how it's covered by the media has changed over time.
JOHN POWERS: Our next presidential election is on November 6, 2012, 16 months from now. So you know what that means. We're already deep into the campaign. I suspect we all know this timetable is crazy. Campaigning now takes as much time and effort as governing. But the strange thing is, most people I know just love it.
Not so long ago, campaigning was a bit saner. I was reminded of this watching the three fascinating old documentaries in Athena's DVD set "The Making of the President: The 1960s." They're based on the famous series of bestsellers by Theodore "Teddy" White, who scripted these docs. White's first book, "The Making of the President: 1960," became such a critical and commercial smash that it helped spawn today's industry in 24/7 campaign coverage.
The movies are as irresistible as fairy tales. For starters, they're chock-a-block with terrific characters, from the doomed, charismatic Kennedy brothers to Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, two figures of Shakespearean dimension. Moreover, all three shows have unforgettable things. 1960 gives us the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate, which forever made TV the central force in our elections. 1964 shows the transformative moment at the GOP convention when pro-Goldwater delegates shouted down the liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller, marking that party's turn toward the brand of conservatism that eventually led to Ronald Reagan's presidency.
The most dramatic action, of course, takes place in the movie about the 1968 campaign. It had everything: the Vietnam War, Eugene McCarthy's insurrection, LBJ's resignation, two assassinations, the police riot in Chicago, the ascent of George Wallace, and the eventual winner, Richard Nixon, radically retooling his image.
Here, riding around in a car in New Hampshire, he talks about the idea of being a changed man.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Making of the President: The 1960s")
President RICHARD NIXON: I am really the most difficult man in the world when it comes to a so-called public relations firm. Nobody's going to package me. Nobody's going to make me put on an act for television. I'm not going to engage in any gimmicks or any stunts, wear any silly hats, do something for the purpose of getting a publicity picture or the rest. I am not an actor, I'm not a good actor. I'm just going to be myself. If there is anything I do have to offer to the American people and to leadership as far as our view in the - our role in the world is concerned, it's the fact that I believe deeply in what I say and that I am myself. And I'm going to continue to play that role. If people looking at me say that's a new Nixon, then all that I can say, well, maybe you didn't know the old Nixon.
POWERS: Back then, as you can hear, it wasn't all soundbites.
Indeed, watching these three DVDs, you're struck by how much simpler running for president used to be. For starters, you didn't have to micromanage or orchestrate everything. Where Nixon looked washed out because he wore a gray suit against a gray backdrop in that first debate, candidates now don't just bring several suits, they bring their own backdrops.
Yet what's even more striking is how campaign coverage has changed. The "Making of" series is narrated in the post-war era's official voice, what we might call Middle American Olympian, which was largely accepted as fair and balanced. These docs offer grand, almost heroic narratives, and treat the candidates with decorous respect. Although White was always a liberal in the Kennedys' pocket, he gave Nixon and Goldwater their due as considerable men who actually stood for things.
These days, our news outlets don't dare aspire to the Olympian. The mainstream media is terrified of appearing even remotely partisan, so it fixates on safely non-ideological things like polls, gaffes and behind-the-scenes gossip. That's why you heard as much about Michele Bachmann's blunder in saying that John Wayne came from Waterloo, Iowa as you did about the policies she's actually voted for. Teddy White would cringe at such a lack of perspective.
Then again, many of today's political reporters would cringe at him. In fact, one reason they talk about politicians so cynically is in reaction to mythmaking reporters like White, who covered up unpleasant truths -like JFK's health problems and irresponsible womanizing - and overlooked things that didn't fit his grand heroic narratives about the run for the White House. White didn't notice that Nixon's '68 campaign used TV in a radically new way; it packaged Nixon like a product. That's why the book on the 1968 campaign that mattered was the one that did notice this, Joe McGinnis' "The Selling of the President." It made White's book look na�ve, if not clueless.
There is, of course, a huge difference between a president being sold and being made. While I wouldn't want to go back to the kind of coverage we got from White, it's hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for the days when running for the president was treated as something noble, not grubby, and hustling reporters didn't feel themselves equal, if not superior, to the hustling politicians they cover. Say what you will about Teddy White, he would never have called a sitting president a dirty name on national TV - not even Richard Nixon.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. The DVD set, "The Making of the President: The 1960s" will be released tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.