Over the next 12-22 months, many candidates and their senior staffers will do things they’ve never done before, experience professional and political pressures they can’t imagine, and do most of it by the seat of their pants. To that end, I’ve compiled a brief list of worthy reads for these potential Masters of the Universe. By no means exhaustive, if you have additions to the line-up below, please feel free to send them my way.
by Reed Galen
Pretty simple. It sucks to work for an asshole. Presidential campaigns have enough pressure and velocity without contending with a bunch of prima donnas who are arbitrary toward staffers because they can be. For many senior staffers on presidential runs, this will be the most attention and authority they ever get. It’s lightening in a bottle. Don’t let it go to your head. Make good choices on who should run the joint – good operatives don’t necessarily make good managers. Just ask all those sales guys who came home from the road as super heroes to fail miserably in the corner office.
Irrelevance. Immeasurability. Anonymity. If your staffers feel any of these things on a regular basis, your campaign has big problems. Most of the cubes at Campaign HQ will be filled with young, idealistic people who truly believe in their candidate and believe the work they do 18 hours a day makes a difference. The moment they don’t feel invested in the campaign, they don’t have clear direction and goals to achieve, and feel that no one knows or cares who they are, is the day you start losing. As Matthew Dowd noted in a recent column, if want to know how a campaign is doing, just walk around and see if folks look like they’re having fun.
3. What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
Think you have what it takes? If you haven’t read Richard Ben Cramer’s magnum opus, you really don’t know. The depth, thoughtfulness, and in many cases humanity of Cramer’s reporting is unmatched. Some of the players from the 1988 campaign are with us (one is in the White House) still today. In 1,000 pages that fly by, Cramer shows us that regardless of the decade or century, running for President is a truly unique American gauntlet.
The riveting story of the 2008 campaign, Game Change has the best and worst of what American politics has to offer. It also marks a dramatic change in how staffers, supporters and behind-the-scenes gossipers have broken with the Omerta of the past. In driving narrative, Heileman and Halperin take the reader through what campaign in the 21st century means – a lot of it is ugly and none of it is easy.
5. All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Here’s the story of what you get when political hacks run amok in the the White House and senior Administration positions, the President is paranoid about...everything...and things go sideways. Everyone says, “We’ll run the cleanest administration in history” and then someone goes to jail for lying to a Federal prosecutor. It’s a story of the worst of politics and the best of journalism, which all too often go hand in hand.
Whether you like James Risen or not is immaterial. Whether you agree with the Iraq War, Edward Snowden or NSA Domestic Surveillance doesn’t matter. Risen, with a perspective, illustrates just how big and out of whack the military-homeland security-industrial complex can get if someone isn’t keeping tabs on it. Read the passage near the beginning about semi-trailers driving pallets of billions of dollars into oblivion. Read it because this stuff really happens and you should really know about it.
Ricks takes the reader through modern generalship in America. He uses George Marshall as the archetype of a leader who was ruthless when it came to field commanders. Contrast that with the fact we have not had one general officer relieved in Afghanistan or Iraq for poor performance on the battlefield. The military's flag officer corps has evolved over the last 60 years, as over-politicized as they've likely been in American history.
8. Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas
I believe Eisenhower is one of our greatest presidents, and too often gets lost behind Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt. As the leader of the Great Crusade, Army Chief of Staff and head of NATO, he knew the military better than his generals did, and understood the stakes of what a burgeoning Cold War really were. He kept his own council and made his own decisions – because he was qualified to do so. Much of what Ike did would be near impossible in today’s 24-7 klieg light culture – but his approach and worldview, are as valid today as they were in the 1950s.
Cronies do not a good Cabinet make. It's hard to imagine the intestinal fortitude to bear up to what Lincoln faced. It says even more about his inner core that he found the best people to fill key roles, despite what they thought of him, or of one another. Groupthink is often disastrous and just as often takes hold early in Administrations. Folks shouldn’t duke it out in the White House Mess, but they shouldn’t lock arms and sing kumbayah at every idea that comes down the pike, either. Thoughtful and vigorous debate is what leaders need. Then it’s up to the President to make the call.
Because we’ve got a political and governing system that often can’t seem to get out of it’s own way, spend some time with Ken Robinson’s exploration of what creativity means and how it should be harnessed. We can certainly use some new ideas and thoughts on what, how and why we should focus on some things and not others. Robinson is extremely readable and breaks down complex issues into digestible pieces.