The Longform Guide to the Campaign Trail
Great stories from Joan Didion, DFW, and others about the art of campaigning.
Photograph by Claudia Sherman via Wikipedia.
Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter.
Well, it’s officially an election year. And over the next 10 months, we’ll be dealing with a constant din of predictions and analysis and talking points, the vast majority of which will be proven either wrong or useless within minutes. But somewhere in all that noise, a few incredible pieces of reporting and storytelling will emerge, enduring work that will still hold up years from now. Stories like the ones in the collection below, which is admittedly incomplete; Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of the ‘72 election for Rolling Stone, probably the most famous work in the history of the genre, isn’t available online.
Joan Didion • The New York Review of Books • October 1988
A take down of the press corps and the modern presidential campaign, published on the eve of the ’88 election:
“Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these ‘events’ they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (‘They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,’ the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, ‘He didn’t make any big mistakes’), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets. ‘On the fishing trip, there was no way for television crews to get videotapes out,’ the Los Angeles Times noted a few weeks later in a piece about how ‘poorly designed and executed’ events had interfered with coverage of a Bush campaign “environmental” swing through the Pacific Northwest. ‘At the lumber mill, Bush’s advance team arranged camera angles so poorly that in one set-up only his legs could get on camera.’ A Bush adviser had been quoted: ‘There is no reason for camera angles not being provided for. We’re going to sit down and talk about these things at length.’”
The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub
David Foster Wallace • Rolling Stone • April 2000
On the press buses, nicknamed Bullshit 1 and Bullshit 2, following John McCain:
"What’s hazardous about Bullshit 1’s lavatory door is that it opens and closes laterally, sliding with a Star Trek-ish whoosh at the light touch of the DOOR button just inside—i.e., you go in, lightly push DOOR to close, attend to business, lightly push DOOR again to open: simple—except that the DOOR button’s placement puts it only inches away from the left shoulder of any male journalist standing over the commode attending to business, a commode without rails or handles or anything to (as it were) hold on to, and even the slightest leftward lurch or lean makes said shoulder touch said button—which keep in mind this is a moving bus—causing the door to whoosh open while you’re right there with business under way, and with the consequences of suddenly whirling to try to stab at the button to reclose the door while you’re inmediasres being too obviously horrid to detail, with the result that by 9 February the great unspoken rule among the regulars on Bullshit 1 is that when a male gets up and goes two-thirds of the way back into the lavatory anybody who’s back there clears the area and makes sure they’re not in the door’s line of sight; and the way you can tell that a journalist is local or newly rotated onto the Trail and this is his first time on BS1 is the small strangled scream you always hear when he’s in the lavatory and the door unexpectedly whooshes open, and usually the grizzled old Charleston Post and Courier pencil will smile and call out ‘Welcome to national politics!’ as the new guy stabs frantically at the button, and Jay at the wheel will toot the horn lightly with the heel of his hand in mirth, taking these long and mostly mindless DTs’ fun where he finds it."
Atomic: How Manny Pacquiao Got to Congress
Andrew Marshall • The Post • August 2010
Manny Pacquiao, still in his fighting prime, on the campaign trail for a congressional seat in the remote, untamed Southern province of the Philippines that spawned him:
"The next morning, Pacquiao has a poolside breakfast at the hotel with some prominent politicians. Jinkee sits beside him, looking miserable. She is the only woman present, not counting the three teenage call-girls that one politician has flown in from Manila on his private jet. Impassive behind wraparound Oakley shades, Pacquiao vacuums back a plate of rice, eggs and fish, and listens.
One politician advises Pacquiao to appoint a leader at every presinto, or voting station, and give him 15,000 pesos to bribe voters with. ‘The presinto leader will distribute 100 each,’ he says. ‘That way, you’ll be certain to win.’"
What Makes Obama Run?
Hank De Zutter • Chicago Reader • December 1995
A first-time candidate working out his public identity early in his campaign for the Illinois State Senate:
“Obama continues his organizing work largely through classes for future leaders identified by ACORN and the Centers for New Horizons on the south side. Conducting a session in a New Horizons classroom, Obama, tall and thin, looks very much like an Ivy League graduate student. Dressed casually prep, his tie loosened and his top shirt button unfastened, he leads eight black women from the Grand Boulevard community through a discussion of ‘what folks should know’ about who in Chicago has power and why they have it. It's one of his favorite topics, and the class bubbles with suggestions about how ‘they’ got to be high and mighty.
‘Slow down now. You're going too fast now,’ says Obama. ‘I want to break this down. We talk 'they, they, they' but don't take the time to break it down. We don't analyze. Our thinking is sloppy. And to the degree that it is, we're not going to be able to have the impact we could have. We can't afford to go out there blind, hollering and acting the fool, and get to the table and don't know who it is we're talking to—or what we're going to ask them—whether it's someone with real power or just a third-string flak catcher.’"
Michael Hastings • GQ • October 2008
The nihilistic confessions of a presidential campaign reporter who covered Giuliani, Huckabee, and Clinton for Newsweek:
"Through a series of flukes, I somehow ended up at the same hotel as Huckabee while most of the other reporters were scattered across town. Over the next few days, I took up my post in the lobby of the Homewood Suites, figuring I might get a glimpse of Huckabee in an ‘unguarded moment,’ just in case he ended up being the nominee or vice president. Maybe I’d catch him swearing, or bringing in a hooker, or breaking out in spontaneous prayer. Maybe he’d learn my name and I could be one of those reporters whom the candidate addresses on a first-name basis. ‘Mikey, you have a question for me?’ There’s a not-so-subtle hierarchy among reporters, and petty jealousies and ass-kissing competitions and displays of inflated self-importance break out all the time. (On the flight from Des Moines, I’d gone to the front of the plane and struck up a conversation with Huck’s ad guy, thinking I might get something useful, but also maybe he’d introduce me to Huck’s daughter, Sarah, and I wouldn’t feel like the only loser on the plane who wasn’t on a first-name basis with her. But she ended up talking to the Time guy, too.)"
And a pair of early favorites from the 2012 campaign:
Robert Draper • New York Times Magazine • November 2011
The strengths and limitations of the Republican frontrunner:
"’The Mormon’s never going to win the who-do-you-want-to-have-a-beer-with contest,’ concedes one adviser, while another acknowledges, ‘He’s never had the experience of sitting in a bar, and like, talking.’
To his admiring subordinates, Romney is the man who, while waiting in an aide’s garage during an advertising shoot, took it upon himself to sweep it spick-and-span. He is the boss who hosted a 2008 post-mortem at his house in Belmont, Mass., and instead of demanding answers or fixing blame, passed out photo albums of the campaign for each staff member to keep. One longtime aide maintains that Romney is, no matter how much of a corporate barracuda the Democrats make him out to be, ‘more Richie Cunningham of Happy Days than Gordon Gekko of Wall Street. And he possesses an almost otherworldly unflappability — seen, for example, on a public street in 2009, when a detractor who recognized Romney cursed at him. ‘Well!’ remarked Romney to a companion. ‘I guess somebody’s having a bad day!’”
Kelefa Sanneh • New Yorker • Jan 2012
Newt Gingrich’s brief turn at the top in Iowa:
"[A]s members of the media were busy turning the Romney-Gingrich feud into the day’s big story, the candidate was speeding south to Hollis, where he was scheduled to make an appearance at a local pharmacy. There he took some questions in front of a Yankee Candle display and examined a pair of parrots. Gingrich has retained his childhood fascination with animals; in his recent book A Nation Like No Other, he includes zoos in his list of ‘civic-minded institutions’ that make America great. He headed to the parking lot, shaking hands and accepting encouragement, while ignoring a man who was pressing him about his Israel policy. A few days earlier, Gingrich had referred dismissively to the ‘invented Palestinian people’; it was hard to tell whether this was loose talk or a dramatic diplomatic stratagem or both.”
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Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.