Reading corner: Whistlestop: My favourite stories from presidential campaign history

Whistlestop: My favourite stories from presidential campaign history

By John Dickerson

Hachette Book Group

You’ve got to hand it to John Dickerson. You’d think he would have his hands full as the host of Face the Nation on CBS News, the political director of CBS News, a political columnist for Slate magazine and as a co-host of Slate’s weekly Political Gabfest podcast. But in February last year, Dickerson also found time to launch a new podcast – Whistlestop – in which he tells a story, some well-known, others less so, from the annals of US presidential campaign history.

From this podcast has sprung this new book – a chronicle of campaign moments from the past 200 years. Clearly, Dickerson has had a rich seam to draw on. Nevertheless he has done a fine job in capturing the moments of drama and surprise, shock and humour, which pockmark each election cycle.

Dickerson’s deep skill as a writer lights up every page. The narrative flows, characters shine and insights and anecdotes jostle for position. Even in those tales which have found greater fame – Howard Dean’s scream for instance – he still managers to layer each chapter with a rich blend of detail, lending much-needed context and nuance to each incident.

The book – rightly, I think – is not in chronological order. Instead, Dickerson jumps back and forth across time with the chapters arranged by themes such as “comebacks”, “collapses” and “crashing the party”. This way – even in a tumultuous year like 2016 – Dickerson is able to demonstrate how what happens today is often an echo of what has gone before. Donald Trump, for example, shares much with the 1968 candidacy of George Wallace.

An unfortunate consequence of Dickerson’s success as a broadcaster has been to limit his time available to write. This book, however, is a vivid reminder that television and debate moderation are by no means the only strings to his bow. Destined to adorn the bookshelves of historians and politicos, candidates and policymakers, Whistlestop is essential reading for anyone interested in US presidential elections, as well as the Whistlestops of yesteryear – and those still to come.