Josh King got his start in presidential advance work watching Ronald Reagan, and served in Bill Clinton’s White House for five years as director of production for presidential events. In his book Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide he chronicles 30 years of what he calls “the Age of Optics,” where the skills with which candidates performed on the campaign trail began to rival what candidates said on the campaign trail as a measure of influencing voters. Here, King recommends his top five books that provide insider knowledge to help readers decode the political performances they see on television, in newspapers and magazines, and online.
Almost every presidential candidate writes a pre-campaign memoir that serves simultaneously as a White House employment application. I would skip most of these. The political books that I gravitate to, instead, are those that bring you inside the mechanics of building a presidential brand and operating a national organization tasked with electing a new leader of the free world. These operations are, by their nature, short-lived and intense, with those who populate them shining brightly for a while, but burning out quickly. After all, once you get past the party conventions in the summer, they all have a 50% failure rate.
Essential Ingredient: Access
I first met Mark Halperin during the 1992 campaign and have come to know John Heilemann during the last few presidential cycles. The way Mark and John work their sources is unparalleled, getting to know them during the campaign, earning their trust, and then milking them for every juicy detail in hundreds of round-the-clock interviews once the votes are tallied. They steadfastly guard the anonymity of their sources, assuring that only they, as the storytellers, can recreate the dramatic conversations at pivotal moments behind closed doors. It’s no wonder that Game Change, their first joint book about 2008 (followed by Double Down, about 2012), became the established record of the closed-press moments of these contests. Just as Game Change became a hit movie for HBO, I’m sure that, next year, Mark and John will serve up a blockbuster about the putative showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Essential Ingredient: Pulling no punches, even on himself
Our collective view of politics isn’t only about the leaders speaking from the stump. It’s also about the writers who craft the stories for the newspapers, the talking heads who appear on cable television, and the publicists that keep the media machine of Washington, D.C. moving. Mark Leibovich has been a crouton floating on top of that soup for two decades, for the last several years as the chief national correspondent for the New York Times magazine. Embarking on a mission to call out the B.S. on both sides of the lens, his 2013 book applies a jaundiced, hilarious eye toward the whole self-promotional circus. A frequent guest spotted at Washington’s nightly soirees where the opposing guns are silenced and glasses are raised in bipartisan comity, Leibovich knows whereof he speaks. He is, as he freely admits, one of them, enjoying and benefitting from the ride like everyone else in “America’s Gilded Capital.”
Why it’s great: Mark helps us understand that there’s a lot more to campaign coverage when you read between the lines.
Essential ingredient: A pinpoint portrayal of the winning 1992 candidate, his spouse, and his staff, but the names were changed to protect the innocent.
Joe Klein has always been one of the keenest observers of American politics. When he showed up at a campaign event, or on a presidential trip, you knew that when TIME magazine hit the newsstands the next week, you were going to get a nuanced, insightful story about the president. When I was working in the White House from 1993 to 1997, Klein’s stories weren’t always welcomed, but their essential truth always got under our skin, a reflection of both his journalistic expertise and his peerless sourcing. When Primary Colors appeared, by “Anonymous,” casting new light on the 1992 campaign, you wondered exactly where was the source of this scathing portrait of a candidate tumbling toward victory. When it was finally revealed that Klein was the author, you knew that these fictional characters couldn’t have been created from scratch.
Why it’s great: This is a book so true to life it had to be fiction.
Essential Ingredient: The passage of time
Bob Woodward always scared the crap out of us when we heard that he was in the West Wing of the White House conducting interviews for his next book. How best to play it? Straight and honest, or elusive? If you didn’t talk to him, your rival would, and then how would you look in print? That’s what happens when the author, with Carl Bernstein, of All The President’s Men makes a career out of dissecting the current president and his staff every few years. But in Woodward’s 2015 book, published 43 years after Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield left the White House, a very different kind of tale emerges. Butterfield obviously felt there was nothing to lose by giving Woodward access to all of his files, probably because his rivals and antagonists were mostly dead and gone. The result in The Last of the President’s Men, a dramatic departure from the usual Woodward genre, is that the central figure comes across as unguarded and unfiltered, opening a window on the mechanics of the Nixon White House and the man in the Oval Office, in a way that few have ever appreciated.
Why it’s great: Butterfield’s story, as told to the master, Bob Woodward, is as close to anything I have read about the daily anguish of serving the president steps away from the seat of power.
Essential Ingredient: The raw reflections of a recently-departed White House aide
In contrast to the 43-year gap between Alexander Butterfield’s time in the White House and his story being told, George Stephanopoulos picked up his pen while the scars were still fresh, publishing his memoir in 1999. When many young people, like myself, worked for Governor Clinton in the 1992 campaign, George was the 30-year old wunderkind we all aspired to be. The campaign, and Stephanopoulos’s subsequent four years in the White House, took a heavy personal toll on him, and he used All Too Human as an exercise in purging those demons, leaving readers with a cautionary tale of flying too close to the sun. These days, readers can watch George six days a week as he navigates between politics and popular culture as the host of ABC’s This Week and Good Morning America, the ultimate story of resurrection and proof positive that there is, indeed, life after the White House.
Why it’s great: This summer, as you’re sifting through these and other books about campaigns past, a new crop of top White House aides will emerge from either the Clinton or Trump campaigns. The next David Axelrod, Karen Hughes, or George Stephanopoulos will be among them, and it will be fascinating to watch who is the Believer (Axelrod); who is Ten Minutes from Normal (Hughes); and who is All Too Human (Stephanopoulos).
Josh King is the author of Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide. His 30 years of deconstructing the mechanics of politics from inside the White House and out qualify him, in the parlance of the advance trade, as a “dinosaur.”