Jill Lawrence, Bob Cullen, Steve Hurst: The Books That Made Me Do It

By Mike Feinsilber

Jill Lawrence cites the book that she and every political reporter stuffed into a backpack during the campaign of 2000 as the most influential in her career. That would be Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

“Politics is psychodrama with profound consequences, and this book got as deep into the truth of that as anything else I’ve ever read,” she says in an email. “I had always thought about and tried to cover politics in a humanistic, almost narrative way, and this book cemented my resolve to do that.”

She describes herself as “a veteran of The Daily Beast, Politics Daily, USA Today, AP, UPI, Three Mile Island, and seven presidential campaigns.” She handled the 2012 campaign as managing editor for politics for  National Journal.

As for the book she’d recommend to a young person considering  into journalism: “I will probably be shouted out of the room, but I’d suggest Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin or The Politician by Andrew Young.”

“The message in both of these somewhat depressing books is how much you don’t know when you are reporting on politics, how skeptical you need to be, and how deep you should try to dig. I realize this makes the opposite point of What It Takes. That is inspirational, these are cautionary. People should read all three!”

Bob Cullen has been a journalist, author and teacher in a 40-year career. He reported for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He contributed to magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Travel & Leisure Golf. He has written or co-authored 17 books. But he is most proud of his second career, teaching English at Central High School in Prince George’s County from 2006 to 2011.

“Memory is getting a little musty,” he says, “but I would like to mention Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960. It came out when I was 12 years old.”

In an echo of what Jill Lawrence had to say, Cullen says of Theodore White’s classic, “Its message to me was that there were layers to the story of any campaign. Most journalism skated on the top layer, the one that campaigns wanted seen. Only the best journalists managed to get through that top layer to the stories of the inner workings of the campaign. White set a high bar. Of course, he worked in a much different, less crowded, and less packaged campaign environment.”

“Perhaps I should not admit this,” admits AP newsman Steve Hurst, an ex-CNN and NBC newscaster in far-flung places, “but I have to put Jimmy Breslin’s How the Good Guys Finally Won as a book that really affected me.  I was three years into my career, city editor for my hometown daily (in Decatur, Illinois) when I read the book. It made me certain I wanted to drop anchor in the business.”

As interesting as his choice of a book is his career’s story:  “I began as a scribbler, as the Soviets called us in my long years there, with my hometown newspaper after taking a M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri. I did that after my B.S. in philosophy could only win me a job driving a cab after college graduation in 1970. Then I quit my first journalism job to study the Russian language and Soviet and East European politics at the University of Illinois. That got me a job with the AP in Columbus, Ohio.

“Whenever anyone asked what I wanted to do, I said ‘Report from Russia.’ Three years later I was. Then there was a year and one-half in Turkey that included that country’s last political coup. Back in Moscow I was AP bureau chief. Three years later I switched to NBC television and was again in Moscow. From there I joined CNN in Moscow. After a total of 12 years there, I returned to the U.S. as CNN State Department correspondent.

“I left CNN for a couple of years and tried my hand at home-building back in my hometown before my poor business acumen led me back to journalism and the AP. There was a long stint on the AP foreign desk, a period as assistant foreign editor before going to Cairo as a correspondent. From there it was on to Baghdad as chief of bureau at the height of the war. Now I’m called international political writer here in Washington.”

As for a book for people considering a career in news, “I believe Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco makes a good text. I read it while AP bureau chief in Baghdad. A riveting example of fine reporting about a very controversial time in American history.”

This is the fourth posting in a series about the books that journalists say lured them into reporting and writing and the books they’d recommend to aspiring journalists. If you were drawn into journalism by a book, join the conversation with a note to [email protected].

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