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Across Presidential Campaign History, 'Manliness And The Presidency Is A Real Theme'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Journalist John Dickerson is covering the story that keeps many Americans awake at night. It is the presidential election, a story that seems to change every minute.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yet while reporters cover the latest outrage, something happens. They get talking about past campaigns.

JOHN DICKERSON: You're looking in history for patterns that you might be able to then use to reflect on the race that's going on right in front of you...

INSKEEP: Or maybe just passing time. Dickerson of "Face The Nation" on CBS clearly loves campaign history and wrote a book about it called "Whistlestop." Dickerson's first campaign was 1996.

DICKERSON: It was a blast. It was wonderful, I mean, because you got to go and you'd talk to voters. And then you'd go to a speech, and the speech had a narrative arc. And the argument that was being made by the candidate could be - you could question the voters and see if that argument made sense. And it was such a thrill to cover that race.

INSKEEP: I think you're suggesting that you felt there was substance in that campaign that was ultimately won by Bill Clinton.

DICKERSON: You have put your finger on it. The race just had - seemed to be a little bit closer to the lives of the people that the politicians were trying to help.

INSKEEP: Is that different in 2016?

DICKERSON: It's more, you know, the connection between Donald Trump and his voters is - those who support him the most - is strong and in a way that no policy speech can get to. It's actually more antique. It's kind of an older-fashioned American electoral approach where it's really just all about the gut. Now, it's always been about that. It's not like American voters sat down with a worksheet and worked out the policies and tax rates. But this feels older in it's more kind of elemental appeal to voters than some of the other campaigns I've covered.

INSKEEP: You know, I was thinking about when I've covered campaigns. It's affected maybe my writing and certainly my state of mind that I feel like I'm in part of this process that's been going on for a couple hundred years.

DICKERSON: Well, that's right. When we were in Philadelphia at the convention, when you hear Barack Obama say Americans are not to be ruled, you know, suddenly I'm back to the election of 1800 where the, you know, the debate and the formation of the country is still taking place. And the debate between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans is about power of the executive branch and based around that idea that if you give too much power to the president that it ends up being close to a monarchy.

INSKEEP: How often, when you began researching these stories that journalists and politicos tell each other from time to time at the bar, how often when you looked into them did you find out the story wasn't really true?

DICKERSON: Often or if it wasn't true it was overplayed. One of the famous ones is Edmund Muskie, senator from Maine running for the Democratic nomination. He was basically angry at the editor from Manchester Union Leader who had attacked him on two fronts. One, he ran an editorial about Muskie's wife on the front page of the paper - not terribly flattering - and then also something that was known as the Canuck letter which was a letter supposedly written by a man in Florida about a slur that Muskie had used referring to a French-Canadian as a Canuck.

And Muskie holds a press conference in the snow on a flatbed truck. He calls the reporters there and appears to cry when talking about his wife. It is pretty clear that he cried. But in one of the written accounts of it, it suggested that his face was a river of tears. When you look at the video, no. He gets a little emotional talking about his wife. But this took on this huge proportions. The idea was Muskie wasn't fit to be president if he broke down at a moment like this under a little pressure.

INSKEEP: But this alleged crying episode is fascinating to think about in 2016 because essentially people were saying of this candidate, you're not being manly enough.

DICKERSON: Exactly, they - manliness and the presidency is a real theme we've got. I mean, in 1988, when Michael Dukakis had a photo op in which he was inside an M1A1 Abrams tank with a helmet on, the Bush campaign and reporters and basically everyone mocked him for trying to look too macho. The reason he was trying to look macho is he'd been attacked as weak on national security. He was giving a national security speech that day and they wanted an image that would match with the speech that was supposed to show that he could be tough on world affairs, too.

INSKEEP: So now you have a woman running for president.

DICKERSON: You do. And I thought, when I saw Hillary Clinton look right at the camera answering Donald Trump's claim that he knows more than the generals, when she looked right at the camera and said, no, Donald, you don't, I felt like - and this could be projecting, of course - but I felt like that was a moment of toughness to get at this expectation some people have for presidents being tough. And that was kind of orchestrated to send that signal.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises one other thing. You write in this book of Ronald Reagan who, in a famous primary moment, got angry and said, I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green. And the anger worked for him. And we have a Republican nominee this year who says, I am angry. And it seems to have worked for him to get the nomination. Can Hillary Clinton be angry this same way?

DICKERSON: I don't know that candidates can ever be angry. I think what I find - what's striking about the Reagan moment - Reagan's other aspect was sunny optimist, smiling. You know, people used to call him an amiable dunce. But amiable was the word that attached to him. And so when he got angry, it was an unexpected moment. And it was a flash of strength that matched with his rhetorical campaign pitch, which is I'll be stronger on the Soviets, I'll be tougher on this bloated Washington government.

So I think it's hard for candidates ever to get angry. And I think it's particularly hard for a woman, given the gender roles that we - are still locked in the public consciousness. And I think Donald Trump - there's clearly some people who felt that there was not enough optimism in his speech at his convention. In 1968, Nixon gave a very dark speech about the state of America. But at the end, he talked about the lift of the American dream. He talked about a new dawn. He had some - there was some light.

And I think some of the criticism that even came from Republicans of Donald Trump was that it was - there's too much of a constant one note on anger and that that might not be what the American people are looking for even if they are as anxious as we all know that they are.

INSKEEP: Has covering this campaign been any fun?

DICKERSON: It's been fun because it raises a lot of questions that I think need to be raised. But the way in which it's been conducted and the meanness of some of it and the way in which we have conversations in social media in which motives are immediately judged and in which experimental thinking to try to find a new solution is stamped out and where mistakes are never tolerated is not fun and is not healthy. And we've got to find a way collectively - politicians, journalists, voters - to fix that and show a little more restraint in the partisan fighting or else we're going to continue to find ourselves frustrated by the political process.

INSKEEP: John Dickerson of CBS's "Face The Nation" is the author of "Whistlestop." Thanks very much, John.

DICKERSON: Steve, it's such a joy to talk to you, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.