January 11, 2011
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Understanding the New Hampshire primary is a hobby that occupies most of us who are politically obsessed. Since I’m writing before the results and you are reading this after they’ve come in, I’m going to suggest some of the best political reading for understanding not just the New Hampshire primary but the nature of politics in general.
The single best thing written to date on the New Hampshire primary is Dayton Duncan’s Grass Roots: One Year in the Life of the New Hampshire Primary. The book focuses the grass roots campaign experience of a dozen volunteer activists, Democratic and Republican, each with a different presidential campaign in the 1988 primary. Although written about an election two decades ago, the lessons are timeless.
Duncan is now much better known nationally for PBS documentaries like Lewis and Clark. His skill with documentary and his previous work as a reporter and a political professional come together to make Grass Roots a great antidote to the talking heads on television.
Television too often focuses on a professional political class of reporters and consultants who all know each other. They talk about what they’re hearing at the hotel bar and what the crosstabs of polls are telling them. During the last weeks, they grab a few locals – usually the same locals they’ve been speaking to for 20 years – who have become skilled at explaining what the real people are thinking or at least at a good patter that sounds plausible.
Duncan’s book is the opposite. It’s not based on interviews with insiders telling you the “real” backroom story. It is a detailed and often poignant study of the emotions, day-to-day activities and motivations of activists at a county level removed from the Washingtonian aspects of the campaign by at least three or four levels.
In an age when the political chattering class confuses automated phone calls for grass roots activity, Duncan puts a magnifying glass on each individual blade of grass and helps distinguish the mythology of politics from the realities of individual motivation.
The energy and idealism of dedicated volunteers sometimes founders on the rocks of national trends beyond their control. But Duncan reminds us of the human side of politics and we experience their heartbreak and exhilaration with them. A sign of his strong writing and storytelling is the sympathy and understanding a reader finds himself feeling for volunteers of opposite parties.
The humanity of politics is rarely more visible than in Duncan’s book. That this book is not reprinted every four years is a crime.
Craig Shirley’s excellent Rendezvous With Destiny is a remarkably balanced account of the Reagan 1980 campaign from an old Reaganite. Although his motivation is clear, his sympathies don’t interfere with his history. For studying New Hampshire, the chapters covering the New Hampshire primary are fascinating from a time when the gap between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary was not seven days but five weeks.
The Reagan comeback after losing the Iowa caucus is one of the great stories in American politics, particularly for conservatives. Shirley’s narrative includes a full chapter on the famous “I am paying for this microphone” moment.
No discussion of political writing would be complete without mention of the single best book ever written about politics and the people in it, The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. The Last Hurrah is not just the best political novel ever written but one of the best American novels. It is well known as a description of urban politics and for being loosely based on the infamous James Michael Curley.
But more than that, The Last Hurrah is a complex study of the motivations and character of people – in this case people practicing politics. As O’Connor explores the loneliness of popularity, the different natures of corruption, and the simultaneous nobility and shame of politics, many characters from today make an appearance even if in an urban 1940s setting.
Anyone who wishes to practice or observe politics and government in particular is incomplete without having read O’Connor’s brilliant novel. Like most of the best writing, truth often emerges more clearly in works of fiction rather than fact.
As this presidential primary cycle moves on and you seek to understand why things happen, move beyond the yelling on television and the quick current affairs of the internet. Sometimes the news cycle moves too fast. Take a look at the long form. You’ll be glad you did.