Joyce Hoffmann: The Making of the President’s Press Corps

Roundup: Talking About History

Joyce Hoffmann, who teaches journalism at Old Dominion University, is the author of “Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion.”

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1960,” a behind-the-scenes campaign narrative that redefined American political journalism. White’s story set the dramatic race that culminated in John F. Kennedy’s slim victory over Richard M. Nixon firmly alongside the country’s culture, values and history to give America an understanding of herself.

To develop the suspense that characterized his account and reveal the ambition of the contenders who sought the presidency, White used the abundant details he had accumulated over months of direct observation of the candidates. In those simpler times, when White followed a presidential hopeful on the often lonely quest for votes in a primary election, he was sometimes the only reporter around.

His book won a Pulitzer Prize, eventually sold more than 4 million copies and led directly to the ceaseless scrutiny now facing the 14 declared candidates for the Republican presidential nomination a half-century later. The success flabbergasted him, since White had repeatedly entertained doubts about his first book. And the type of campaign reporting he helped create came to dismay him.

By the 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign, White acknowledged that his preoccupation with character and strategy had given birth to quadrennial media frenzies in which presidential politics became a game. He rued the atmosphere of endless critical media attention in which candidates were forced to function, and he took part of the blame....

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