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In 'Whistlestop' John Dickerson looks to history for perspective on campaigns

John Dickerson tells Monitor contributor Erik Spanberg that he wondered: 'What were the norms and standards that existed for previous [presidential] campaigns?' He looked to history and found that 'it was just so much fun, these stories you come across.'

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    'I collected these stories over the years,' says Face the Nation moderator and Slate columnist John Dickerson about the stories in his new book 'Whistlestop.' Dickerson says he was 'covering the campaigns and always looking to history for some kind of guidance about what was happening, trying to put things in context.'
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Lest any of us forget, history matters. Reporters and columnists and commentators spent much of the past year declaring the current presidential race unlike any other in American history.

And yet …

– In 1967, as John Dickerson recounts in Whistlestop, his breezy but substantive account of key presidential campaign moments, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a segregationist running on a third-party platform, responded to poll results showing him with a 58% unfavorable rating by declaring, “They lie when they poll. They are trying to forge public opinion in the country, and professional polls are owned by eastern moneyed interests, and they lie. They’re trying to rig an election.”

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This summer, after Hillary Clinton enjoyed a post-convention surge in the polls aided by her Republican rival’s verbal gaffes, the nominee, Donald Trump, said, “I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged. I have to be honest.”

– In a chapter on the 1964 race between incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater, Dickerson includes another prescient quote. Goldwater said then, “The Republican establishment is desperate to defeat me. They can’t stand having someone they can’t control.”

If only Goldwater had worn a cap proclaiming, “Make America Great Again,” the lines would be entirely blurred between past and present.

Parallels and similarities with the 2016 slog are only part of the story told by Dickerson in “Whistlestop." From the hard-cider distributed at rallies by backers of William Henry Harrison during what was then an atypically populist call for support in 1840 to Michael Dukakis’s disastrous photo op in an Army tank in 1988, Dickerson delves into seminal moments and the circumstances that led to those occasions.

Dickerson, who became host of CBS’s “Face the Nation” last year, is first and foremost a writer. He spent a dozen years at Time magazine, where he worked his way up to become White House correspondent. Later, he wrote for Slate, where he remains part of a popular podcast (“Slate Political Gabfest”). “Whistlestop” debuted as a Slate-backed spin-off of “Gabfest” and, now, has been turned into a book with major revisions to fill out the stories and make them reader-friendly as opposed to listener-friendly.

(Dickerson was all but bound for a life in Washington and politics: His mother, Nancy Dickerson, was the first woman to become an on-air correspondent at CBS News and she later was an associate producer on “Face the Nation,” the show her son now hosts. She also worked for NBC, later developed documentaries, and reigned as one of Washington’s leading socialites. John Dickerson wrote a biography of his mother, “On Her Trail,” published in 2006; Nancy Dickerson died in 1997.)

Asides and quips prevent any of these campaign vignettes from turning musty. In 1884, Grover Cleveland, faced controversy when news surfaced of him fathering an illegitimate child 10 years earlier. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” became something of a catchphrase as a result. Dickerson summarizes the political obstacle Harrison faced before triumphing in that election this way: “Before news broke about his private lustings on the hustings....”

Then, too, so much rummaging through archives – or Google – yields more contemporary gems. In a world where the Deflategate football inquiry can span years, and in which we still haven’t full adjudicated the Taylor Swift-Katy Perry rift, we may have collectively forgotten then-candidate George W. Bush stating, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Thankfully, “Whistlestop” reminds us.

At other times, Dickerson skewers the pointlessness of punditry, noting the political cognoscenti “had been certain that Truman was a gone goose in 1948, that a B-list actor with simple views could never get elected in 1980, and that Donald Trump would flame out after a week in 2016.”

For those who long for the purity of the Revolutionary era, Dickerson disabuses readers of any notion that times were better or more dignified. His chapter on James Thomson Callender, a muckraking journalist dubbed a “scandalmonger,” makes clear the long tradition of sullied campaigns and political maneuvering. Thomas Jefferson, while serving as secretary of state in George Washington’s cabinet, paid Callender under the table to slander and attack Lin-Manuel Miranda – OK, it was the real Alexander Hamilton and not his Broadway reviver – while Hamilton was serving in the same administration.

Callender took the attacks to new depths by exposing an adulterous affair Hamilton had been part of in 1792. Rather than hint at such moral failings, Callender broke precedent and named names, as Dickerson notes. Jefferson, of course, denied any involvement with any form of scandalmongering, lying to his benefactor Washington, among others, along the way. Jefferson ran against John Adams for the presidency in 1800 – Adams beat him in the previous election – and implored Callender and others to promote his candidacy while savaging the opposition. Callender, Dickerson notes, described Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character” in print and spewed personal and political bile throughout. Adams, using the Sedition Act, jailed Callender for his writings.

Jefferson went on to become president but forgot about Callender, ignoring the scandalmonger’s entreaties for financial assistance to repay the $200 fine imposed by Adams. Jefferson also ignored Callender’s requests for a patronage job in return for his role in the campaign.

Though Callender, a raging alcoholic, would drown in the James River in 1803 after a bender, he lived long enough to dedicate the final year of his life to publicly disclosing the details of Jefferson’s liaisons with Sally Hemings, a slave on Jefferson’s Monticello farm who bore him children.

Dickerson spoke to The Monitor about working on “Whistlestop” while covering a campaign and becoming moderator of a Sunday morning talk show. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What made you want to tell this story in this way?

I collected these stories over the years, covering the campaigns and always looking to history for some kind of guidance about what was happening, trying to put things in context.

One of the first instincts is, has this happened before, and if it’s happened before, what was the reaction then? What were the norms and standards that existed for previous campaigns? And in that investigative process, it was just so much fun, these stories you come across. And you can’t believe parts of American history.

Also, you think you knew what happened, OK, I knew Grover Cleveland had an out-of-wedlock birth, but I didn’t realize the five separate investigations. We think we’ve gone off the deep end now, but, I mean, there were five separate investigations in Buffalo about whether he did or didn’t have an out-of-wedlock birth. And I never knew that Maria Halpin [the mother of the child] wrote her own account of things, which sounds very much like rape.

And knowing now what we know about the personal behavior of powerful men, when I read Maria Halpin’s account, it seems totally believable. And why do I think that? I don’t know, but the culture – she gets criticized for even talking out loud [about what happened]. You can easily imagine somebody taking advantage of her the way she describes. On the other hand, she could have been crazy and could have been an alcoholic. That story alone was so much richer and there was so much more going on than the way I understood it, which made it sound kind of mirthful, this, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

I was delighted to read about James Thomson Callender because this is as nasty in terms of campaigns and planting stories and leaks as anything going on today, isn’t it?

You’re exactly right. Part of what this book is and part of my enthusiasm for history is based on the fact that I’m ignorant of a lot of it. I knew about Callender and I had read in passing in Gil Troy’s book, “See How They Ran,” about how Jefferson had sort of the first negative campaigner working for him.

But then you read about it and you think, why is this not, like, a major motion picture? It was just incredible.

I think the one distinction is, back then, they hired people like Callender and now Clinton and Trump are saying that stuff about each other themselves. So there used to be a high road and a low road and now there’s just basically one road.

You could just go to Breitbart to hire a campaign manager, for example, that might be one way to do it, right?

Well, that’s quite a good point. That’s right. It’s kind of what Jefferson did do, although I guess [Callender] didn’t manage his campaign. [Donald Trump hired Breitbart Media executive Stephen Bannon in August to run his campaign.] He savaged Hamilton and he did such a good job of that that Jefferson went and hired him. It’s actually not a bad analogy.

As much as this book shows us how human nature doesn’t change, politics don’t change a great deal, I wonder whether it was a respite for you because you were going back to different eras and at least it wasn’t bathed in Trump and Clinton all the time?

You’ve got it exactly right. The stories are fun, the characters are amazing and there is a certain sameness about [the 2016] campaign. And the sameness is not that fun.

Let’s say we were having a debate about the inequities in the economic distribution of wealth. That might be a little dry, but it’s crucial to people’s lives and to the state of America at the moment.

What we’ve got now are debates that aren’t taking place in a way that suggests anybody is going to get any learning out of them. Obviously, race is an important issue, but the way it’s being discussed is only going to exacerbate the underlying problems.

So this was a great way to have fun with the history and learn and reflect on what was going on right in front of us. And take a little vacation [from 2016] and not feel guilty about it.

What do you think are going to be the memorable moments of this campaign?

I think, just from a theatrical standpoint, a lot of these stories are written in the old-fashioned Time magazine form where you have a long and winding lead, which nobody has patience for anymore, but which I love.

But I think the lead of the story of this campaign is Donald Trump going down the escalator: Nobody took him seriously, it was a kind of weird theatricality but it was also very emblematic of a campaign that was all about Donald Trump himself, that it would be encased in the Donald Trump marketing machine. That entrance was in Trump Tower.

I think another turning point would have to have been his response to Judge [Gonzalo Curiel, whom Trump said couldn’t be impartial because Curiel’s parents are immigrants and Trump and has vowed to deport undocumented immigrants while also accusing Mexicans of committing crimes in the US.]. And the response to the Gold Star family, the Khans [who criticized Trump for not making sacrifices for his country].

If he doesn’t win, one of the reasons will be that there were concerns about his impulsiveness and those are two instances in which that was the case.

Another major theme would be Hillary Clinton’s email issues and her press conference at the U.N.

Timothy Egan of The New York Times recently wrote a column that said, in part, that “the current presidential election may yet prove that an even bigger part of the citizenry is politically illiterate.” He was writing about how many American voters are lacking even a basic knowledge of government and separation of powers and those kinds of things. You travel a lot and speak to a lot of voters. How concerned are you with what he is describing?

I think I’m pretty concerned about it. I have a couple of reactions. [One is], how bad are we relative to where we have been in the past, that’s always my view of things.

In 1840, the literacy rate in America was, like, 90%. Because people got their entertainment through their newspapers and when the penny press started printing, there was a period of massive interest in the campaigns through the newspapers.

Now the question is whether it was any more elevated. It was pretty bad and the papers were partisan.

So is the electorate any worse off? I think it probably is. I think the other problem is everybody is much more partisan. The point there is people just sort themselves by team and that’s it. They’re not engaging in the issues because, “I don’t care and I just know what my team knows and I’m going to vote for my team.” So, that’s not good.

And the biggest worry is that the partisanship encourages more conflict and conflict encourages less wrestling with the choices that have to take place in any public policy discussion. And then the campaigns are no longer a way to build a mandate for action because basically everybody who doesn’t win says that the election was either illegitimate or it didn’t answer the questions that people are saying it answered and, therefore, everything should be battled from scratch. That’s terrible because there’s no momentum to get anything done.

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