whistlestop-bookcover

A person’s age, a person’s gender, the amount of money one brings home annually, even the political party one most closely aligns with; in the grand scheme of things, none of these demographic descriptors allowed for reprieve come this time last year. In the year 2016 Americans of all shapes and sizes were inundated with one of the most interesting and heated presidential races in campaign history. As political personalities made their way into morning drives to work, lunchtime perusals of current events, or evening viewings of local news channels, not many people in America could escape the theatrical events unfolding in the political landscape of the day. John Dickerson, political director of CBS News and moderator of Face the Nation, knows this reality all too well, and he capitalizes on it in his recent work Whistlestop, which came out during the thick of last year’s political campaigns.  

Whistlestop is a retelling of a political journalist’s favorite stories throughout the history of presidential campaigning. Dickerson takes the historical significance of the Whistlestop method of campaigning, and allows that image to drive home his overarching theme: “If there is a constant to the American campaign story, it is that elites can’t predict the future very well.” That’s right, voters are constantly “undoing [the] certainties” of the political press. This compilation of oral histories captures that truth in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and potentially motivating, as it takes the reader to various points in history, that at times eerily mirror the present, and yet validate their own unique placement in the annals of record keeping. So again, regardless of one’s political inclinations, this book has the potential to engage any reader through the method of good, old-fashioned storytelling. Dickerson makes use of natural language to draw in his reader, and he has a good pace and overall flow throughout these narratives. Whistlestop is not recorded chronologically, but rather topically, so it does have an anachronistic feel to it at times. This is evidenced in how Dickerson places Andrew Jackson’s unexpected surge as a primary candidate in 1824 in the middle of the book, rather than closer to the front, as one might expect. Still the same, Dickerson’s weaving of the stories throughout the overall narration alleviate some of the distraction this method might otherwise induce.  

From Ronald Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” moment to Grover Cleveland’s opponents taking up the war cry “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” this book is jam packed with entertaining clips of campaign history. Some accounts retell specific incidents, such as Edmund Muskie’s emotional tirade against the Union Leader’s publisher William Loeb, where the famous question “was Muskie crying?” first made its appearance. Like this retelling, Dickerson unearths the backdrop of the story. In doing so he clearly identifies another primary aim of this book, which is to note that throughout campaign history there are very few single moments that shift the course or trajectory of the race, but rather several smaller circumstances that lead to the moments most will often remember. In other sections of the book, Dickerson outlines the major events and themes that impacted an overall campaign, while not necessarily focusing on one single event within. This is demonstrated in his treatment of JFK’s 1960 run for office, which is entitled “The Catholic Candidate.” 

A beautiful component to this book is Dickerson’s ability to transcend political issues and to allow readers to make their own conclusions. There is no party biased agenda here. This is simply a text that allows its readers to surmise their own villains and heroes of each story, even if Dickerson does provide some evidence within the overall narratives. So, if one is interested in political history, or desires to escape the tumultuous political landscape this country dwells in, this book might be just what the doctor (or maybe President?) ordered. One can find this riveting narrative in the nonfiction shelves of the Joplin Public Library.

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