My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History


By John Dickerson

Formats and Prices




$15.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 2, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From Face the Nation moderator and contributing editor for The Atlantic John Dickerson come the stories behind the stories of the most memorable moments in American presidential campaign history.

The stakes are high. The characters full of striving and ego. Presidential campaigns are a contest for control of power in the most powerful country on earth. The battle of ideas has a clear end, with winners and losers, and along the way there are sharp turning points-primaries, debates, conventions, and scandals that squeeze candidates into emergency action, frantic grasping, and heroic gambles. As Mike Murphy the political strategist put it, “Campaigns are like war without bullets.”

Whistlestop tells the human story of nervous gambits hatched in first-floor hotel rooms, failures of will before the microphone, and the cross-country crack-ups of long-planned stratagems. At the bar at the end of a campaign day, these are the stories reporters rehash for themselves and embellish for newcomers. In addition to the familiar tales, Whistlestop also remembers the forgotten stories about the bruising and reckless campaigns of the nineteenth century when the combatants believed the consequences included the fate of the republic itself. Some of the most modern-feeling elements of the American presidential campaign were born before the roads were paved and electric lights lit the convention halls-or there were convention halls at all.

Whistlestop is a ride through the American campaign history with one of its most enthusiastic conductors guiding you through the landmarks along the way.


Begin Reading

Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

Timeline of U.S. Presidential Elections

Election Year: 1788–1789

Winner: George Washington (no party)—69 electoral votes

Other Major Candidates: John Adams** (no party)—34 electoral votes

John Jay (no party)—9

Robert H. Harrison (no party)—6

John Rutledge (no party)—6

Election Year: 1792

Winner: George Washington (no party)—132

Other Major Candidates: John Adams** (Federalist)—77

George Clinton (Democratic-Republican)—50

Election Year: 1796

Winner: John Adams (Federalist)—71

Other Major Candidates: Thomas Jefferson** (Democratic-Republican)—68

Thomas Pinckney (Federalist)—59

Aaron Burr (Democratic-Republican)—30

Samuel Adams (Democratic-Republican)—15

Oliver Ellsworth (Federalist)—11

George Clinton (Democratic-Republican)—7

Election Year: 1800

Winner: Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican)—73 [32]

Other Major Candidates: Aaron Burr** (Democratic-Republican)—73[32]

John Adams (Federalist)—65

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (Federalist)—64

Election Year: 1804

Winner: Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican)—162

Other Major Candidates: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (Federalist)—14

Election Year: 1808

Winner: James Madison (Democratic-Republican)—122

Other Major Candidates: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (Federalist)—47

George Clinton (Democratic-Republican)—6

James Monroe (Democratic-Republican)—0

Election Year: 1812

Winner: James Madison (Democratic-Republican)—128

Other Major Candidates: DeWitt Clinton (Federalist)—89

Election Year: 1816

Winner: James Monroe (Democratic-Republican)—183

Other Major Candidates: Rufus King (Federalist)—34

Election Year: 1820

Winner: James Monroe (Democratic-Republican)—228/231 [33]

Other Major Candidates: John Quincy Adams (Democratic-Republican)—1

Election Year: 1824*

Winner: John Quincy Adams* (Democratic-Republican)—84[34]

Other Major Candidates: Andrew Jackson (Democratic-Republican)—99[34]

William H. Crawford (Democratic-Republican)—41

Henry Clay (Democratic-Republican)—37

Election Year: 1828

Winner: Andrew Jackson (Democrat)—178

Other Major Candidates: John Quincy Adams (National Republican)—83

Election Year: 1832

Winner: Andrew Jackson (Democrat)—219

Other Major Candidates: Henry Clay (National Republican)—49

John Floyd (Nullifier)—11

William Wirt (Anti-Masonic)—7

Election Year: 1836

Winner: Martin Van Buren (Democrat)—170

Other Major Candidates: William Henry Harrison (Whig)—73

Hugh Lawson White (Whig)—26

Daniel Webster (Whig)—14

Willie Person Mangum (Whig)—11

Election Year: 1840

Winner: William Henry Harrison (Whig)—234

Other Major Candidates: Martin Van Buren (Democrat)—60

Election Year: 1844*

Winner: James K. Polk* (Democrat)—170

Other Major Candidates: Henry Clay (Whig)—105

James G. Birney (Liberty)—0

Election Year: 1848*

Winner: Zachary Taylor (Whig)—163

Other Major Candidates: Lewis Cass (Democrat)—127

Martin Van Buren (Free-Soil)—0

Election Year: 1852

Winner: Franklin Pierce (Democrat)—254

Other Major Candidates: Winfield Scott (Whig)—42

John P. Hale (Free-Soil)—0

Election Year: 1856*

Winner: James Buchanan* (Democrat)—174

Other Major Candidates: John C. Frémont (Republican)—114

Millard Fillmore (American Party/Whig)—8

Election Year: 1860*

Winner: Abraham Lincoln* (Republican)—180

Other Major Candidates: John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat)—72

John Bell (Constitutional Union)—39

Stephen A. Douglas (Northern Democrat)—12

Election Year: 1864[35]

Winner: Abraham Lincoln (National Union)—212

Other Major Candidates: George B. McClellan (Democrat)—21

Election Year: 1868

Winner: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican)—214

Other Major Candidates: Horatio Seymour (Democrat)—80

Election Year: 1872

Winner: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican)—286

Other Major Candidates: Horace Greeley (Democrat/Liberal Republican)—0[36]

Thomas A. Hendricks (Democrat)—42

B. Gratz Brown (Democrat/Liberal Republican)—18

Charles J. Jenkins (Democrat)—2

Election Year: 1876*

Winner: Rutherford B. Hayes* (Republican)—185

Other Major Candidates: Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat)—184

Election Year: 1880*

Winner: James A. Garfield* (Republican)—214

Other Major Candidates: Winfield Scott Hancock (Democrat)—155

James Weaver (Greenback)—0

Election Year: 1884*

Winner: Grover Cleveland* (Democrat)—219

Other Major Candidates: James G. Blaine (Republican)—182

John St. John (Prohibition)—0

Benjamin Franklin Butler (Greenback)—0

Election Year: 1888*

Winner: Benjamin Harrison* (Republican)—233

Other Major Candidates: Grover Cleveland† (Democrat)—168

Clinton B. Fisk (Prohibition)—0

Alson Streeter (Union Labor)—0

Election Year: 1892*

Winner: Grover Cleveland* (Democrat)—277

Other Major Candidates: Benjamin Harrison (Republican)—145

James Weaver (Populist)—22

John Bidwell (Prohibition)—0

Election Year: 1896

Winner: William McKinley (Republican)—271

Other Major Candidates: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat/Populist)—176

Election Year: 1900

Winner: William McKinley (Republican)—292

Other Major Candidates: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat)—155

John Woolley (Prohibition)—0

Election Year: 1904

Winner: Theodore Roosevelt (Republican)—336

Other Major Candidates: Alton B. Parker (Democrat)—140

Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)—0

Silas C. Swallow (Prohibition)—0

Election Year: 1908

Winner: William Howard Taft (Republican)—321

Other Major Candidates: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat)—162

Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)—0

Eugene W. Chafin (Prohibition)—0

Election Year: 1912*

Winner: Woodrow Wilson* (Democrat)—435

Other Major Candidates: Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive)—88

William Howard Taft (Republican)—8

Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)—0

Eugene W. Chafin (Prohibition)—0

Election Year: 1916*

Winner: Woodrow Wilson* (Democrat)—277

Other Major Candidates: Charles Evans Hughes (Republican)—254

Allan L. Benson (Socialist)—0

James Hanly (Prohibition)—0

Election Year: 1920

Winner: Warren G. Harding (Republican)—404

Other Major Candidates: James M. Cox (Democrat)—127

Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)—0

Election Year: 1924

Winner: Calvin Coolidge (Republican)—382

Other Major Candidates: John W. Davis (Democrat)—136

Robert M. La Follette Sr. (Progressive)—13

Election Year: 1928

Winner: Herbert Hoover (Republican)—444

Other Major Candidates: Al Smith (Democrat)—87

Election Year: 1932

Winner: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat)—472

Other Major Candidates: Herbert Hoover (Republican)—59

Norman Thomas (Socialist)—0

Election Year: 1936

Winner: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat)—523

Other Major Candidates: Alf Landon (Republican)—8

William Lemke (Union)—0

Election Year: 1940

Winner: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat)—449

Other Major Candidates: Wendell Willkie (Republican)—82

Election Year: 1944

Winner: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat)—432

Other Major Candidates: Thomas E. Dewey (Republican)—99

Election Year: 1948*

Winner: Harry S. Truman* (Democrat)—303

Other Major Candidates: Thomas E. Dewey (Republican)—189

Strom Thurmond (States' Rights Democrat)—39

Henry A. Wallace (Progressive/Labor)—0

Election Year: 1952

Winner: Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican)—442

Other Major Candidates: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat)—89

Election Year: 1956

Winner: Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican)—457

Other Major Candidates: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat)—73

Election Year: 1960*

Winner: John F. Kennedy* (Democrat)—303

Other Major Candidates: Richard Nixon (Republican)—219

Harry F. Byrd (Democrat)—15[37]

Election Year: 1964

Winner: Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat)—486

Other Major Candidates: Barry Goldwater (Republican)—52

Election Year: 1968*

Winner: Richard Nixon* (Republican)—301

Other Major Candidates: Hubert Humphrey (Democrat)—191

George Wallace (American Independent)—46

Election Year: 1972

Winner: Richard Nixon (Republican)—520

Other Major Candidates: George McGovern (Democrat)—17

John G. Schmitz (American)—0

John Hospers (Libertarian)—1

Election Year: 1976

Winner: Jimmy Carter (Democrat)—297

Other Major Candidates: Gerald Ford (Republican)—240

Election Year: 1980

Winner: Ronald Reagan (Republican)—489

Other Major Candidates: Jimmy Carter (Democrat)—49

John B. Anderson (no party)—0

Ed Clark (Libertarian)—0

Election Year: 1984

Winner: Ronald Reagan (Republican)—525

Other Major Candidates: Walter Mondale (Democrat)—13

Election Year: 1988

Winner: George H. W. Bush (Republican)—426

Other Major Candidates: Michael Dukakis (Democrat)—111

Election Year: 1992*

Winner: Bill Clinton* (Democrat)—370

Other Major Candidates: George H. W. Bush (Republican)—168

Ross Perot (no party)—0

Election Year: 1996*

Winner: Bill Clinton* (Democrat)—379

Other Major Candidates: Bob Dole (Republican)—159

Ross Perot (Reform)—0

Election Year: 2000*

Winner: George W. Bush* (Republican)—271

Other Major Candidates: Al Gore (Democrat)—266

Ralph Nader (Green)—0

Election Year: 2004

Winner: George W. Bush (Republican)—286

Other Major Candidates: John Kerry (Democrat)—251

Election Year: 2008

Winner: Barack Obama (Democrat)—365

Other Major Candidates: John McCain (Republican)—173

Election Year: 2012

Winner: Barack Obama (Democrat)—332

Other Major Candidates: Mitt Romney (Republican)—206


Across from the mayor's office in Manchester, New Hampshire, is a little exhibit celebrating the first-in-the-nation primary. I interviewed Senator Rand Paul there as I covered his unofficial kickoff to his 2016 presidential campaign.

In the Primary Room is a replica of a newspaper about another Senate candidate, Edmund Muskie of Maine. The headline of the 1972 New Hampshire Sunday News reads, "Muskie Calls Loeb a Liar." The deck adds "Senator Rants Emotionally at Publisher." It was a turning point for Muskie. In a speech on a flatbed truck in the snow, he attacked William Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader and appeared to cry. Supporters said they weren't tears, but melted snow. Popular lore held that the fallout from the crying doomed Muskie's candidacy.

It's a familiar tale to campaign junkies. It's one of the stories reporters might rehash after a long day following candidates. One person recounts a little piece of the story, is topped by the next one, and a third reporter embellishes. Since I wasn't at the bar yet, I posted a picture of the newspaper on Instagram, with the caption "It made me weep." Jonathan Martin of the New York Times posted not long after, "It was the snow!!!!" Peter Hamby of CNN quoted from Muskie: "This man Loeb doesn't walk, he crawls."

This book grew out of exchanges like that one. Over the last six presidential cycles I've covered, I've collected a lot of stories like this about previous campaigns. While you're watching one race, there's usually an echo from the past that gives you a guide about what might happen. I've put some of those stories down here, retaining the thematic structure of reporter conversations where we hopscotch across time—talking about 1948 one moment and 1976 the next.

Watching Edmund Muskie's New Hampshire crucible on film in order to write chapter six, it was even more colorful than I had known, but reading the oral history of the campaign, I realized it's a story about something more than just a candidate crack-up. It's really a story about how expectations for a campaign can sink a candidate. That tale of expectations is one story we see again and again in presidential campaigns, even the 2016 race. Chapter four, the story of Bill Clinton's 1992 comeback in the Granite State twenty years later, is about how expectations worked in an entirely different fashion.

When I first told some of these stories on the Slate podcast Whistlestop, I took my cues from what was happening in the political conversation in 2015 and 2016. Donald Trump's surprise success was historic. So was Bernie Sanders's unexpected string of victories. But there were also historical antecedents. Reading old newspapers on my iPad while flying back from an interview with a 2016 candidate, the stories felt very familiar. The broken links to the past tell us something too about how we've changed our standards and about the values and thinking behind the way we look at presidential campaigns today.

The 1840 presidential campaign circus that helped sell William Henry Harrison to the public seemed a lot like the Trump circus seems today. The candidates couldn't be more different—Harrison was packaged as a humble farmer, and Trump was running on his wealth—but the daylong parade the Whigs devoted to their candidate was as raucous and issue-free and pitched to the appetites of the masses as a Trump rally kicked off by the candidate buzzing a stadium in his 757 or the helicopter rides he was giving at the Iowa State Fair. At the same time, John Quincy Adams, who fretted about candidates who made gaudy appeals to the people, would look at the rise of the reality-show candidate and say, "This is what we worried about."

Andrew Jackson is losing his place on the twenty dollar bill, but his argument for the wisdom of the people over the elites sounds a lot like what Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are saying today. To understand Bernie Sanders requires understanding the frustration people have about an economy they think is rigged, but it can also be explained in the historical liberal yearning for a process where the people have a chance to overthrow the powerful and the privileged. That story starts in chapter thirteen in 1824 and moves through Truman in 1948, McGovern in 1972, and Dean in 2004.

These are stories about personalities—Jefferson, Truman, Kennedy, Reagan—but campaigns are also a reflection of the country that elevates or destroys those personalities. Real dreams are at stake. When the McGovern campaign crumpled over his choice of Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, it may very well have doomed the liberal experiment for a generation, as historian Bruce Miroff suggests. If Edward Kennedy and Howard Dean had managed their campaigns better, perhaps their ideas would have prevailed. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had a dramatic fight during the 1976 campaign that might have looked like just a battle over delegates in a chess match for power, but at the heart of that campaign was an ideological battle about what was possible in government and what it meant to be a conservative. The capitulation Ronald Reagan saw in Gerald Ford is the same one Republican candidates identified in their GOP leaders in 2016.

The elements of passion, authenticity, and ideas wind through all of these moments. On the Republican side, the echoes of 1952 and 1976 are everywhere as the GOP wrestles for its identity in 2016 and as the establishment and grassroots tussle for supremacy. The #NeverTrump movement shares so many parallels with the 1964 Stop Goldwater movement that it even includes Governor Mitt Romney playing a very similar role to the one his father, Governor George Romney, played a generation before. In George Wallace's 1968 campaign we hear such close echoes of Donald Trump that it's as if the transcripts have been transposed.

When I first started as a secretary at Time Inc. in New York, I lived in the Strand bookstore on weekends, where a little nook contained lots of the books that I've relied on here. The prices written in pencil in the corners under the covers were just right for my budget. I had read them over the years as I covered campaigns. Going through them as I wrote Whistlestop, I found plane tickets from the Dole campaign in 1996, old business cards, napkins, and hasty marginalia that seemed vital at the time, judging from the check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points. I'd carried some of those books to my first two conventions in 1992. In the days before cell phones, one of my jobs was to care for the phones reporters used on the convention floor. I'd set them out at the start of the day and collect them for safekeeping overnight.

I came across old friends like John Stacks, the author of Watershed, a book about the 1980 campaign. He promoted me to be a reporter at Time, and my copy of his book has a fringe of Post-it notes all curled and brittle from age.

I also spent a little time with my mother. She was a political reporter who covered some of these races. She'd had a stroke and was hospitalized during the first campaign I covered, so we never got to talk about this life much, but when she died I became the keeper of her books. There she was in the margins of Theodore White's books on the presidency. Senator Hugh Scott, who helped draft Eisenhower in 1952 and was run over by Goldwater in 1964, signed his book to her with "To Nancy Dickerson: Peripatetic, percipient—and pretty too!" (You could get away with that kind of fanny pat back then.) When William White signed his book about Senator Robert Taft to her, she was six years from being married to my father.

Elections are a way voters search for a sense of control over their lives. They are also a national conversation about what we believe, our national purpose, and how to keep ourselves on track. Because the American experience is so grounded in its founders and the system they created, history gives us the outline for our present narrative. We look back at it when we're writing about the present to remind ourselves of where we fall short, but also of the promise and glory in the four-year competition to make things better.

I hope you enjoy these moments of campaign history. They are just a few stops along the way. There are many great Whistlestops to come, from the past and in the future.


Inflection Points

1980—"I Am Paying for This Microphone, Mr. Green"

When writing, it's better to show than to tell. This is true with campaigning, too. It's better if you can demonstrate your presidential qualities than if you simply talk about them. The problem is, candidates are stuck giving speeches all the time. Their days are full of telling. If a candidate has shown leadership in the past, all they can do is talk about it. It's a marvel that some strategist hasn't contrived to roll a baby stroller down the street just so a long-shot candidate can leap to the rescue in order to display their mettle to the voters.

In Nashua, New Hampshire, on February 23, 1980, Ronald Reagan came as close as you can to showing what it looks like to be a leader, in a confrontation over a debate. It was the Saturday night before the state's primary, and two thousand people were packed into the Nashua High School gymnasium, creaking on their folding chairs and holding their thick overcoats on their laps. They had come to see a debate between Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the two Republican front-runners, but standing on the debate stage with Bush and Reagan were four of the other Republican candidates.

That was a problem. But what Ronald Reagan did next would give him his moment, which some people think turned the Republican nomination his way, and we all know where that led. Whether it did start things off for the fortieth president or not, the moment became a symbol for the instant Reagan rescued his campaign and hastened the rise of showmanship in the evaluation of the modern presidency.

Bush: Thunder out of Iowa


  • "As much as we arrogantly think our present political moment is new, it is not. Now, along comes this wonderful book to set us straight. It connects and interconnects signal campaigns from our 'glorious' past, where the same sausage making we decry today is on vivid, sometimes impressive, sometimes hilarious, display. Dickerson's artful time travel, so accessible but so eloquently written, will be red meat for anyone who counts themselves a politics carnivore-or anyone who cares about the fascinating mechanics of getting elected in the United States."—Ken Burns
  • "Dickerson knows what he is doing...[This book] should be kept on the night stand and dipped into when you crave a good tale. Like Dickerson as an interviewer, it has sturdy charm; it is inquisitive, generous, probing, and thoughtful. You read Whistlestop to put the chaos of today into perspective - or, perhaps, to escape from it."—NYT Book Review
  • "Filled with colorful characters and rollicking tales, this chronicle of exciting presidential campaigns is fun, informative, and enlightening. John Dickerson has a storyteller's touch and a historian's insight. It's nice to be reminded of the beauty and glory of American democracy at its best."—Walter Isaacson
  • "With a delightful conversational style featuring casual asides and plenty of incisive commentary, Dickerson's many years of experience covering politics informs his intriguing inside looks at how certain stories begin and how they grow... A politically astute, timely book that will also have great historical value for future campaigns."—Kirkus Review
  • "Whistlestop is entertaining and informative, but it also is a timely reminder for those tempted right now to believe that, with the growing divisions in this country, all is lost. No matter how big the storm that throws us off course, we have a history of righting the ship and steering into calmer waters."—Connie Schultz, The Washington Post
  • "Dickerson's work 'connects and interconnects signal campaigns from our 'glorious' past, where the same sausage making we decry today is on vivid, sometimes impressive, sometimes hilarious, display.'"—Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press
  • "A gifted chronicler, Dickerson looks back over two centuries of election campaigns and zeros in on flashpoint episodes that somehow reset the collective national narrative."—The National Book Review
  • "Whistlestop, [a] breezy but substantive account of key presidential campaign moments."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "These stories illustrate that although this election is unusual, it's not unprecedented...Dickerson's book is an edifying reminder that human beings don't change. Politicians and voters alike often forget the past, and end up repeating the same mistakes."—The Federalist

On Sale
Aug 2, 2016
Page Count
288 pages

John Dickerson

About the Author

John Dickerson is Moderator of Face the Nation, Chief Washington Correspondent for CBS News, and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. He has been a reporter in Washington for almost 20 years covering the White House, Congress, and political campaigns. Dickerson is a co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest as well as the host of Whistlestop, a podcast of campaign history.

Learn more about this author