Pulp Politics

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics

by Anonymous
Random House, 366 pp., $24.00

The People’s Choice: A Cautionary Tale

by Jeff Greenfield
Putnam, 309 pp., $22.95

The Last Debate

by Jim Lehrer
Random House, 318 pp., $23.00

In 1971, Jerry Bruno and Jeff Greenfield jointly wrote a book called The Advance Man. Bruno had been “advance man” for the John F. Kennedy campaign when the techniques of spin and momentum were in their relative infancy, and Greenfield had performed something of the same office for the Robert Kennedy campaign in 1968. (Bruno had also been the “advance man” for the presidential trip to Dallas in November of 1963, and in this memoir he vividly described the atmosphere of hate and venom in that city, rightly locating it not on the Birchite fringe but in the pitiless conflict between the Connally and Yarborough wings of the Texas Democratic establishment. It was their vicious squabbling, for example, that led to the fatal change in the route of Kennedy’s motorcade.

If you care to take up and read The Advance Man today, you will be struck above all by the atmosphere of amateurism and voluntarism that it conveys. In the crucial Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries which gave John Kennedy the nomination, politics was still being contested at the front-porch and saloon-bar level and (though his father, Joseph, left nothing to chance on the fund-raising and fund-distributing fronts) the candidate was compelled to engage directly with the voters. In one West Virginia town, where the issue of popery was still a heated one, a woman came over to Bruno while he was taking the measure of the place for a potential Kennedy visit:

I’d like to see you alone,” she whispered.

We sneaked off somewhere.

I overheard that you’re going to have Kennedy here,” she said. “I just want to tell you that I’m for him.” It was like she was offering to sell atomic secrets. “I have a tip,” she went on. “Don’t put up any signs until an hour or two before he comes. Otherwise they’ll tear them all down.”

Bruno’s response was to get highschool students to pass out handbills door to door “so that nobody could keep the news of a Kennedy visit from people.” And such techniques had their usefulness elsewhere, and for other reasons:

In Wisconsin, at the urging of Joe Kennedy, we had hundreds of people distributing a tabloid newspaper about John Kennedy. It would have been cheaper—certainly easier—to hire a distribution company, but by using volunteers, it meant all these people and their families felt a commitment to the campaign. They were thinking about it. They were arguing the case for Kennedy to their friends. They were certain to vote on primary day, and to get out their friends.

The Advance Man contains tips on everything from how to deal with assassination threats (“Those who write don’t shoot,” Bobby Kennedy was fond of saying, “and those who shoot don’t write”) to the tactics required for filling a football stadium in Nashville. The aspirant advance man is advised to make friends with a local labor committee, and to “Give 50 housewives the …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.