Books

John Dickerson’s ‘Whistlestop’ shows how politics can eerily repeat itself

John Dickerson, perhaps best known as the moderator of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” has released a book that will be devoured by political junkies, called “Whistlestop.”
John Dickerson, perhaps best known as the moderator of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” has released a book that will be devoured by political junkies, called “Whistlestop.” The Associated Press

On the evening of July 14, 1964, Nelson Rockefeller, who had already lost his party’s presidential nod to Barry Goldwater, took the stage at the packed Republican National Convention. Losers often take advantage of their last moment in the spotlight to call for party unity. Rockefeller tried something different: He took on what he considered the right-wing extremists and racists — otherwise known as Goldwater supporters — taking over his party.

“These are the people who have nothing in common with Americanism,” Rockefeller bellowed. “The Republican Party must repudiate these people.”

John Dickerson describes what happened next: “The crowd booed. ‘We want Barry!’ they chanted. Then the noisemakers picked up. Like the Whos in Whoville on Christmas Day, the Rockefeller haters blew squeeze-horns and toy trumpets and hooters. Someone pounded a giant bass drum. Those with cowbells got busy.

“Rockefeller couldn’t be heard and stopped talking. Goldwaterites seated in the rafters shouted themselves hoarse. ... His remarks were interrupted twenty-two times in five minutes. ‘This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen,’ Rockefeller said, condemning ‘infiltration and takeover of established political parties by communist and Nazi methods.’ 

Eerie, right? It’s as if the ghost of Rockefeller hung out at this year’s Republican convention in Cleveland, where Ted Cruz was booed off the stage after refusing to endorse Donald Trump and telling delegates to vote their conscience, and the crowd repeatedly devolved into a mob chanting against Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up!”

This excerpt from Dickerson’s “Whistlestop” illustrates why his book is a fix for those of us who have found no cure for our addiction. It is crack for the political junkie, two parts history laced with enough irreverence to keep it lively, if not always verifiable.

Dickerson is perhaps best known as the moderator of “Face the Nation.” He is also the political director of CBS News and a columnist for Slate magazine, where he first shared some of these stories in the “Whistlestop” podcasts.

He writes that the surprising presidential campaigns of Trump and Bernie Sanders fueled his interest in researching past campaigns. He read old newspapers on his iPad while flying back from interviewing 2016 candidates and discovered the pull of the past.

For example, in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s “argument for the wisdom of the people over the elites sounds a lot like what Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are saying today.”

The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, which makes for a livelier read and keeps even the veteran politico open to its small surprises along the way. Bill Clinton comes under a section called “Comebacks” and is followed by Michael Dukakis in a section titled “Collapses.”

Dwight Eisenhower shares a section with Jackson under the rubric “Too Close to Call,” and in the last section, “Crashing the Party,” we get the George Wallace story and the drama between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter that can still leave proud Democrats cradling their heads in their hands.

Dickerson is clearly a pack animal, fond of many of his fellow journalists. Still, he offers occasional glimpses of moments when America did not benefit from their scrutiny. During John F. Kennedy’s primary run in West Virginia, for example, we behold journalists’ long habit of finding people to say stupid things to fuel their predetermined narratives — in this case, Kennedy’s struggle to overcome prejudice against his Catholicism.

“Our people built this country,” one woman told a reporter. “If they wanted a Catholic to be president, they would have said so in the Constitution.”

Lovely.

Dickerson also has a little fun with the harrumphing Washington Post editorial board, which was not keen on candidate Harry Truman’s decision in 1948 to dump stuffy prepared speeches for “off the cuff” chatter with voters.

“We cannot suppress the hope that when he speaks for ... the whole world to hear, that the advantages of weighing his words will not be overlooked.”

Truman ignored The Post, surely not for the first time, and at least twice showed up on the back of his whistlestop train wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. Squeezing his mischief between parentheticals, Dickerson writes, “Upon hearing this, the Washington Post editorial board undoubtedly required a stiff drink.”

In writing about the Truman whistlestop campaign, Dickerson reveals his own not-so-secret longing.

“Could this kind of campaign happen again? Campaign reporters certainly hope so. It validates all the candidate behavior they watch so closely for signs of meaning. Voters should hope so, too. The Truman success offers the hope that maybe through a candidate, voters can be shifted out of the rigid ruts they’re in. Maybe a candidate with a new style and blunt talk can shatter the sclerosis of the system. That’s what John McCain tried in 2000. It was what Donald Trump was successful doing in the Republican primaries of 2016.”

And with that last sentence, Dickerson is off the rails. It must be that he hopes to moderate another presidential debate; only that could explain his brief but jaw-dropping attempt to cast Trump as another version of Truman.

I was reminded of my tour of the Trumans’ humble home, now a museum in Independence, in which a long string dangles from the top of the stairway. They used to tug on it to turn on the light up there before climbing the stairs to bed. So Trump-like.

It is impossible to read this book without considering the state of the current presidential race, in particular Trump’s candidacy — and those who tried to stop it. Dickerson quotes Richard Nixon’s aside to Pat Buchanan in 1964, after party moderates failed to stop anti-establishment supporters of Goldwater at the convention: “Buchanan, if you ever hear of a group getting together to stop X, be sure to put your money on X.”

What Nixon meant, Dickerson writes, is “that anybody who has enough power from the people to require a movement to stop them has the power of the people, and that’s all you need in politics.”

Dickerson also describes a campaign ad for Lyndon Johnson that year in which actor Bill Bogert, a Republican, shares his misgivings about Goldwater’s supporters: “I tell you, those people who got control of that convention, who are they? I mean, when the head of the Ku Klux Klan, when all these weird groups come out in favor of the candidate of my party, either they’re not Republicans or I’m not. I’ve thought about just not voting in this election, just staying home. But you can’t do that because that’s ... that’s saying you ... you don’t care who wins. ... I think my party made a bad mistake in San Francisco. But I’m gonna have to vote against that mistake on the third of November.”

Hmmm. On July 18, the Clinton campaign released a web ad starring the same actor, Bogert, who 52 years later is struggling again with his party’s choice for president.

“I was a Republican who voted for Eisenhower and Nixon,” Bogert says in the ad. “My father was a Republican, his father was. The whole family was. But Donald Trump. He’s a different kind of man. This man scares me.”

“Whistlestop” is entertaining and informative, but it also is a timely reminder for those tempted right now to believe that, with the growing divisions in this country, all is lost. No matter how big the storm that throws us off course, we have a history of righting the ship and steering into calmer waters.

Until the next storm ... and the next ...

“Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories From Presidential Campaign History” by John Dickerson (439 pages; Twelve; $30)

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