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Culture Books

Presidential politicking

(The Associated Press)


Presidential politicking

Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, regulation

Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie’s The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign (Simon & Schuster, 2017) is a sprightly account of how John F. Kennedy became president by pioneering in the use of polling, media consultants with 30-second advertising spots, starting early and contesting local contests for state convention delegates, and working both primaries and the optics of televised presidential debates.

Some of the most interesting pages concern how Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson for the vice-presidential slot. For an exhaustively researched and evocatively written account of the confusion surrounding that and other Kennedy-Johnson matters, The Passage of Power (Knopf, 2012)—the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson—is terrific.

Craig Shirley, who has previously written about Ronald Reagan’s losing 1976 campaign and successful 1980 effort, is back in the fray with Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980 (Broadside, 2017).

Shirley suggests that those apparent wilderness years were the best thing that could have happened to Reagan and the GOP, because both needed time to hone their message and wait for Americans to be fed up with high inflation and interest rates, as well as Iran’s hostage-taking.

Reagan during those years was able to develop his ideas of a “New Republican Party” that would appeal to “the man and woman in the factories” and “the cop on the beat.” He anticipated in that way the appeal of a Donald Trump, without the ego. That gained Reagan respect even from The Washington Post’s David Broder, who called Reagan “a card-carrying conservative, but he has never been a hater or a screamer.”

Reagan did not hate all government regulation, only that which didn’t pass the smell test. I mean that literally: When we can’t tell by sniffing whether a particular piece of food or pill could kill us, it’s good to have a Food and Drug Administration. But corruption is rampant, and in Bottleneckers: Gaming the Government for Power and Private Profit (Encounter, 2016), William Mellor and Dick Carpenter show what happens when we unnecessarily retard free movement and progress by unnecessary occupational licensing.

Our podcast, The World and Everything In It, recently spotlighted the plight of tour guides in Savannah, Ga. Bottleneckers gives the big picture: Guide licenses are an unnecessary nanny state activity since online rating services let tourists evaluate providers. Besides, even a bad tour won’t kill you—and if it does, family members or friends choosing a casket are likely to run into state regulations that require casket licenses.


Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca (Norton, 2017) would make a fine gift for fans of the great film released 75 years ago. It explains the origins of the screenplay in an unproduced stage play, the casting decisions and responses of the actors (including the immigrants who made up most of the cast), the beneficial effect of the Production Code in demanding subtlety, and many other remarkable providences.

We might always have construction of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona: This is the 135th year since construction began on probably the weirdest-looking church in the world, and Gijs van Hensbergen’s The Sagrada Familia (Bloomsbury, 2017) explains how its spires began piercing the skyline and why the end is not yet in sight.

Will we always have Europe? Donald Trump received a lot of pundits’ hate mail when he asked whether Europe had the will to survive, but Douglas Murray provides evidence of the problem in The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Bloomsbury, 2017). He reports well on excuses, guilt, and tiredness among political and media elites.

Eugene Peterson’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire (WaterBrook, 2017) includes 49 finely crafted sermons with a common emphasis on living “a life of congruence,” with no gap between who we are and what we say.

Andrei Kovalev’s Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin (University of Nebraska, 2017) has valuable information on the incongruence of Russian leaders’ words and actions, but the writing is plodding. —M.O.