Presidential races derailed

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

October 24, 1999|By Jules Witcover

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.

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