When politics was fun
On Sept. 26, 1960, when Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, met in the first ever nationally televised presidential debate — watched or listened to live by some 60 percent of adult Americans — there were no overnight polls or sophisticated voter focus groups to tell the press or the public who had won the debate. The next day, when the Republican nominee flew to Memphis for a campaign rally, he was greeted by an especially friendly matron sporting a big Nixon pin. The woman, while nearby reporters listened, sought to comfort Nixon: “Don’t worry, son. Kennedy beat you last night, but I’m sure you’ll do better next time.” Nixon uncomfortably thanked her. A national consensus would begin to emerge that yes, Kennedy had “won” the debate.
That thoughtful woman consoling Nixon in Tennessee over his debate “loss” had in fact been recruited, rehearsed and directed by Dick Tuck, the joyful Democratic political operative and Marine veteran of Iwo Jima whose death last week in Arizona reminds us of a time when American politics was both more fun and more forgiving.
That was the same Dick Tuck who — when he was a state Senate candidate in California and asked what he would do about the Los Angeles River, that was as dry as a bone — had dared to answer: “Either fill it up or paint it blue.” After he lost that primary, Tuck earned the admiration of every disappointed candidate ever forced to make a concession statement, with these memorable words: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”
Long before I got to meet and to like Tuck in the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy, he was already legendary to those in and around politics. But please know that the elfish Tuck’s capers never involved illegally breaking in to the confidential files of an adversary’s doctor or repeatedly and baselessly charging publicly that the elected president, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, was not a natural-born American citizen.
Hard as it might be to believe in the midst of today’s poisonous and personally destructive political warfare, campaigns once brimmed with rascals and laughs. At the end of a long day of tough campaigning in a New Hampshire primary, reporters and pols would gather at the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer in Manchester and swap opinions, information, needles and good-natured insults. Candidates (many of whom actually would drink, in moderation, an alcoholic beverage in the company of press) were far more available and open. Sen. John McCain’s winning 2000 campaign in New Hampshire, when the underdog Arizonan traveled with reporters on his campaign bus in a continuing and frank conversation, may have been the last great experiment in accessibility and candor.
Nostalgia, as the saying goes, is not what it used to be. Reporters, in part because of the 24-hour news cycle, changed from shots and beers after late-night steak dinners to kale salads with maybe one glass of white wine before heading not to meet with a party chairman but to the gym and then to their laptops. Campaign consultants, perhaps in response to the increasingly hypercritical coverage by an increasingly anti-politics press corps writing for an increasingly anti-politics readership, severely limit reporters’ access to the candidates. Increasingly, only “known and dependable friendlies” guaranteed to provide basically worshipful coverage (e.g., Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel) are granted an audience with candidates.
Mark Shields is a nationally syndicated columnist.