Presidential races derailed; The manner in which we pick a leader has become a disreputable ordeal for candidates and voters alike.


ONE EARLY evening more than 40 years ago, in my first professional involvement in presidential politics, along with perhaps 20 other reporters I boarded President Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign train at Union Station in Washington. We were bound for Philadelphia, where the president was to speak in his pursuit of a 1956 re-election victory over the Democratic nominee, Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois.

En route, White House and campaign aides circulated texts of Eisenhower's speech so that we members of the traveling press could meet early morning-edition deadlines. The aides strolled through the small compartments of the train, answering reporters' questions or just passing the time. As we clacked away on our noisy and cumbersome portable typewriters, Western Union clerks moved through the train collecting parts of our stories, page by page "takes," in the jargon of the pre-computer news business, for wire transmission to our newsrooms around the country.

It was all very low-key, though to a neophyte like me it seemed a glamorous exercise of the sort that in those days drew young reporters to the craft of journalism (then seldom called a "craft" or "journalism"). Legendary figures such as Merriman Smith of United Press -- "Smitty" to his contemporaries in the press corps and on the White House staff, but an unspoken "Mr. Smith" to an awe-struck me -- toiled with sleeves rolled up past their elbows and cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths, in a scene out of a Hollywood movie, wisecracking as they wrote.

Four years later, in 1960, in my first exposure to a presidential primary campaign, I strolled down the Main Streets of small mining towns in West Virginia accompanying, with only three or four other reporters, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts as he canvassed for votes. He would pop into local stores, shake hands with storekeepers and customers, and politely identify himself as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, asking for their consideration on primary day.

As Kennedy moved from town to town, he would often share his car, driven by an aide, and his thoughts with a reporter or two. As primary day approached, the candidate would ride in a bus with his campaign staff and reporters, sometimes sitting up front talking with a reporter he knew from Boston or Washington, other times sauntering to the back of the bus to banter with groups of us relaxing there, sipping beers or harder stuff, always in adequate supply. At day's or night's end, the candidate would join us for a nightcap, discussing the day's events or anything else that came into his mind, or ours.

Much has changed in presidential politics since the Eisenhower campaign of 1956, beyond modes of campaign transportation and the replacement of reporters' typewriters with laptop computers. Also, the easy access and relationship to the candidate that reporters enjoyed during the Kennedy campaign of 1960 is largely a nostalgic memory. Presidential campaigns have become marathon exercises in complex logistics, and except for the longest long shots in the early primaries, presidential candidates are often remote and inaccessible to the traveling press attempting to take their measure for American voters.

Candidates and presidents harmed by news-media disclosures of their personal peccadilloes and shortcomings of character have learned to be more protective of themselves. A new generation of reporters, grown more skeptical or cynical toward politicians after the deceptions of the Vietnam War period and the Watergate scandal, has adopted more demanding standards for them than those of earlier journalistic generations.

Today's presidential campaigns are as different from the campaigns of 1956 and 1960, or of 1952, as the supersonic jet is from the horse and buggy. Eisenhower in 1952 and John Kennedy in 1960 each started campaigning openly and in earnest only after the campaign year had begun. Each ran in only a handful of primaries to achieve the nominations of his party. Each had only a few political strategists whispering in his ear and relied largely on party chieftains around the country to generate support. Television and public-opinion polling were only beginning to become important to campaigns, and the cost of running was a fraction of what it has become.

Yet, the system by which Americans choose their president today does still resemble in essential ways the one that elected Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Kennedy in 1960, and every president thereafter. Major-party candidates still have to compete for public support in state primaries, though in many more of them, and (except for the self-financing Steve Forbes in 1996) they have to raise money to pay their expenses in those primaries. They have to accumulate convention delegates in various ways in all the states. And those who win their party's nomination have to collar a majority of votes in the electoral college to claim the presidency.

But, as the United States is about to mark its first presidential election of a new century, one deplorable fact has become clear: The process by which the nation chooses its leader has been hijacked -- by money, ambition and, yes, the ingenuity of the men and women who practice the art of politics in all its forms.

It is an art that, over the span of 53 presidential elections, has come to resemble not an exercise of civic-mindedness but rather an orgy of no-holds-barred warfare. It is first fought out in a relentless pursuit of campaign money, then state by state in the trenches of primary elections and caucuses, and finally nationwide through the new high-tech weapons of mass communication, increasingly under the generalship of mercenaries. From beginnings when no political parties existed, and no primaries, caucuses and national conventions were held, the process has evolved into a seemingly endless partisan, highly structured and bitterly personal combat for the presidency.

The time when campaigns were run by one-horse jockeys -- friends or professional associates of the candidate motivated by devotion to him and his ideas and involved only so long as he was involved -- is largely gone. Now we live in the era of the political technocrat -- the hired campaign strategist, pollster, media consultant, fund raiser -- who auctions off his expertise to whichever candidate offers the most money or the best chance to wield influence and gain celebrity. What the candidate stands for might not matter; more and more, these hired guns are like geography teachers who can lecture that the world is round or flat, provided the price and potential for success are right.

Hand and hand with this attitude comes a campaign mentality that anything goes. Whatever it takes to win is done, the only caveat being that one's tactics should not be so egregious that they backfire, and even that caveat is often ignored. What it takes to cause a backlash against sleazy campaigning seems to increase with every election. Negative politics, which candidates and campaign managers once shunned as self-destructive except in the dire circumstances during the waning days or hours of a campaign, have often become the first tactic to be used, to throw the opponent on the defensive at the outset.

Campaign finance laws, originally intended to clean up presidential politics, are riddled with loopholes and have lengthened the obstacle course and the price to run it, widening the opportunity for the political technocrats to gain profit and fame.

Individuals of great wealth such as Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000 can circumvent the federal campaign finance laws and the considerable burdens imposed by them by spending millions of dollars of their money. Such blatant attempts to purchase the presidency -- or at least to gain entry into an election process that their personal experience would not otherwise have earned -- further undermine the credibility and integrity of the system.

The party conventions have become mere confirmations of decisions reached in the frenetic caucuses and primaries. And the general-election campaigning is essentially a competition for crowds and television evening-news coverage, rather than a revealing debate on the key issues facing the country, except in formal debates that also have shortcomings. The result more often than not is voter disgust and, by election time, apathy, resulting in abysmally low turnouts.

In all this, the news media that traditionally played watchdog, holding candidates (and their handlers) to account for what they say and do, have been reduced to being either bystanders or accomplices in the artful manipulation of politics by the hired guns.

At the same time, the advent and proliferation of radio and television talk shows has encouraged the phenomenon of the celebrity journalist, whose participation often undermines his credibility in reporting on presidential politics and the credibility of his whole profession, already the target of wide public skepticism.

Is this any way to pick a president? Does the road to the White House have to be a disreputable trial by ordeal for the candidates and also for the public, who must endure its length, its noise level, its corruption, its divisiveness and its cost, not simply in money but in the price it exacts in public incivility?

This depressing state is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. They never foresaw the election of the American president evolving into an all-consuming competition for campaign funds to feed a political technocracy dominated by people whose first and often only loyalty is to themselves -- to their influence, power, celebrity and greed.

Excerpted from "No Way to Pick a President" by Jules Witcover of The Sun's Washington Bureau, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York). Witcover has covered every presidential election since 1956 and is the author of 14 books on American politics and history.

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