The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A gift from my daughter which hung around a bit before I got to it and I am glad I did. As I was picking through it I saw the foreword by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, read that, and knew I was all in. Author Timothy Crouse covered the media who covered the 1972 presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, highlighting the changing media landscape in 1972, and offering his take on how the media did its job.
Some of the critiques I saw of the book mention that it may not have aged well but I think it is worth a look. It may be less enjoyable for those that do not know or remember some of the very notable media giants that are covered. We have Evans and Novak, Jules Witcover, James Reston, R.W. (Johnny) Apple, Dan Rather, and many others, including the inimitable Dr. Thompson. Despite that the book does offer some amazing insights. This book shows us the start of modern political journalism, critiquing the press honestly, showing us the system that brought us the news as flawed, and subject to manipulation by press savvy media operations like President Nixon’s. Crouse is not a Nixon fan, with Press Secretary Ron Ziegler taking a pretty good beat down in the book. The Ziegler coverage betrays some grudging respect of the ruthless operation of the Nixon re-election effort, with access to the “inside” of the Nixon effort carefully rationed, with “bad” stories bringing punishment to the offending journalists. Crouse gives his take of Nixon, and the hard lessons he learned from his losing campaigns in 1960 and 1962:
“Richard Nixon, however, was different. Nixon felt a deep, abiding, and vindictive hatred for the press that no President, with the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson, had ever shared. Nixon had always taken personally everything that the press wrote about him. The press, he believed, never forgave him for pulling the mask off its darling, Alger Hiss; so the press tortured him, lied about him, hated him. Over the years Nixon conceived and nursed one of the monumental grudges of the century, a loathing so raw, ugly, and obvious that it only served to make him vulnerable. To borrow a phrase from Iago, Nixon wore his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck at. The daws had a field day. Painfully, Nixon learned his lesson. He learned to control and disguise his hatred, to use it in subtle ways to defeat his enemies in the press. It was precisely for this reason, because Nixon hated for so long and studied his foes so well, that he had become the nemesis of the press. No other President had ever worked so lovingly or painstakingly to emasculate reporters.”
Crouse, Timothy “The Boys on the Bus” page 180
Crouse is fair about looking at how the press did its job, hitting critical points but taking into account the difficult environment that they were operating in. The issue of “pack” writing is frankly looked at, as well as some of his criticism of the “objective” style of covering Nixon and McGovern, where both sides of a controversy are covered, with the reporter making no judgement in the story as to which side of the controversy may be more credible. It is a major criticism issued these days by Paul Krugman over at the New York Times. These challenges in journalism are covered pretty well in the book. We see the rivalry between print and TV, the differences in print between daily newspapers and news magazines, when news magazines had pretty big circulation numbers. Things have obviously changed considerably, but some things look the same (on steroids.)
Crouse was working for Rolling Stone when he wrote this book, connecting him to Hunter Thompson, and bringing to mind the Thompson book on the 1972 campaign, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72.” I read that book many years ago but may need to take another look. Crouse includes some of the good Doctor’s more outrageous antics.
“The first sign that Hunter had caught on with the straight press was when they began searching newsstands all over the country or phoning their home offices to get them a copy of his lengthy chronicle of the Florida primary. Thompson had loaned his press card to a freak, who had run amuck aboard Muskie’s whistle-stop train, insulting reporters and heckling the candidate when he tried to speak at the final stop in Miami. Many of the reporters, seeing only the badge on the freak’s lapel, had taken him for Hunter S. Thompson of Rolling Stone. In the article, Thompson explained the mistake but revelled in its consequences. The piece was a big hit with the press corps, and they soon began to read him regularly. Thompson’s best lines were quoted in Newsweek. ‘Ed Muskie talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow on next year’s crop.’Hubert Humphrey was a ‘treacherous, gutless old ward-healer who who should be put in a bottle and sent out with the Japanese current.’”
Crouse, Timothy “The Boys on the Bus” page 313
I always felt that Hunter Thompson was a bit hard on Humphrey, but I digress. The lifelong war with the press that Richard Nixon engaged in has been ramped up by the current occupant of the Oval Office, making Nixon, in my view, a piker by comparison. But the seeds of the coming war with the press were planted in the campaign of 1972, and Crouse covers it admirably. A good historical book, and a great media book. After all these years it still has relevance.