The First Modern Political Campaign
Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
by Robert A. Caro: A Review
by Eric Pinder
A great read for political junkies, especially during an election year. Lyndon Johnson's 1948 senate race against a legendary, insanely popular former Texas governor, Coke Stevenson, was in many ways the first "modern" election campaign, complete with mudslinging, smears, soundbites, accusations of voter fraud, and appeals to the Supreme Court.
Stevenson had a long, distinguished career and reputation for honesty and integrity. He refused to respond to Johnson's attacks and mudslinging, considering it "undignified." "The people know my record," he told friends. That would be enough, he assumed. Surely no one would believe the upstart Johnson's lies. LBJ, meanwhile, never slept. He hired a helicopter and a band and barnstormed from town to town, chipping away at Stevenson's reputation at every opportunity. It was a new way of campaigning. Would it work?
There's a fascinating scene where Johnson wrestles with his conscience, debating whether the ends justify the means. However honest Stevenson was, he was also a reactionary who, in Johnson's opinion, would do terrible damage in Washington. LBJ decides there's no point in "playing nice" if it means he'll lose. He can't do any good for the party unless he wins.
In the end, oddly reminiscent of the Florida 2000 election with its hanging chads, the race comes down to 87 hotly contested votes and an appeal to state and federal judges.
A somewhat related digression: I’m writing this review in October 2008, shortly after the vice presidential debate, at a moment when both the McCain and Obama campaigns are getting more aggressive and personal, and slinging more mud. Everyone always complains about mudslinging in politics, but politicans keep doing it because it works, as LBJ demonstrated in 1948. The candidate who tries to stay above the fray usually loses.I wonder if we’ll ever again have two presidential candidates who genuinely like and respect each other, rather than loath each other.
Sarah Palin and Joe Biden seemed to get on well enough with each other in their vice presidential debate, though of course they both skewered the other party’s top of the ticket. I listened to the Palin-Biden vice presidential debate on the radio and came away with these impressions.
Palin sounded good for the first twenty minutes or so, but rambled more and more as the debate went on. There were still moments when she got in good zingers and sounded presidential, but some of her other answers just made me cringe with embarrassment for her. One sentence had nothing to do with the next, and none of them had anything to do with the original question. At times she sounded as if she were just trying to fill up the 90 seconds with any words that came to mind. Also, she also said "also," too much, also. Like that. I haven't felt so embarrassed for someone since watching Admiral Stockdale stand mute between Gore and Quayle for an hour in the 1992 VP debate.
Biden impressed me more than I thought he would, especially in the second half of the debate. I'm not too familiar with Joe Biden. All I know about him is that every four years he runs for president, gets about three or four votes in Iowa and drops out before the New Hampshire primary. He has a reputation for making amusing gaffes and being kind of goofy, and in one speech earlier this year he made my all-time favorite campaign promise when he said with great enthusiasm, "Barack Obama will literally change the direction of the world!" (Thanks for that one, Joe! I look forward to seeing the sun rise in the west for the next four years.) Now that I think about it, Biden tends to misuse the word "literally" as much as Palin overuses "also." (You can read more grammar pet peeves here.)
Given his reputation, I was waiting for him to stumble over his words. But he didn't, for the most part. He sounded confident and authoritative. I thought he won easily. But hearing some of the post-debate commentary, they were talking about things I obviously couldn't see on the radio, like body language, Palin winking at camera, Biden looking old and tired, etc. And it sounds as if, to the TV audience, Palin at least made it a tie, by looking and sounding confident. Some people even considered her the winner.
I remember reading about the Kennedy/Nixon debate, where Kennedy won according to the TV audience but Nixon won according to the radio audience. Carter vs Reagan had a similar split of opinion between radio and TV audiences. Interestingly, and perhaps ominously for the Obama campaign, the "radio" winners of both of those debates ended up losing the election.