Posted: November 1, 2010
couple of days after delivering his now-famous speech on race in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, Barack Obama gave an interview to one of his favorite campaign reporters, Newsweek's Richard Wolffe. Wolffe was doing a biographical piece about Obama's childhood in Indonesia. "Who are you?" he asked Obama. "People want to know who you are."
It was a perfectly reasonable question—it still is, for that matter—but Obama deftly changed the subject. "Hasn't this been a fascinating campaign?" he said to Wolffe. "If I wasn't in this campaign, I would love to follow this election as an observer. Why can't you write a book about it? Like Theodore White. Those are great books." Wolffe immediately pooh-poohed the notion. There's so much minute-by-minute coverage of campaigns these days that people don't want to read about them afterward, he told Obama. In fact, Wolffe was amazed Obama even brought it up. "How archaic," he thought. "The poor man doesn't understand the media." Didn't he know that the days of those old Teddy White making-of-a-president books are long gone?
Still, Wolffe thought about it. And he thought about it more when the poor man himself sweetened the deal. "I will give you access," Obama told Wolffe. "You'll get more access than anyone else." It wasn't long before Wolffe was hard at work on what would become Renegade: The Making of a President.
It is conventional wisdom in the world of political reporting that White-style campaign books are dead. And yet it seems as if everybody who covered the last campaign decided to write one. Indeed, White's ghost lives on in The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election, by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson; Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin; and Wolffe's Renegade.
So the question is not whether campaign books are dead. The question is what type of book can succeed, both journalistically and financially, in a world dominated by the Drudge Report, Twitter, Politico, the Note, First Read, Hotline, talk radio, and what Drudge would call ABCCBSNBCCNNFOXMSNBC. With so much real-time reporting on the campaign—Wolffe's original instinct was entirely correct—what kind of after-the-fact account is still valuable at this late date to the person who followed the campaign with even moderate interest? The campaign book is not on-the-news reporting, and it's not a scholarly work that takes years to gestate. It's got to be something else.
Going through the volumes here, it's clear that the campaign book is in a period of transition. Balz and Johnson have written the old-style story of the 2008 campaign. Wolffe has produced an inside report based in large part on his own relationship with Obama. And Heilemann and Halperin have produced a super-inside account, taking readers farther inside political campaigns than most have ever been.
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The authors of Game Change, New York magazine's national political correspondent and Time magazine's editor-at-large, realize that nobody cares about behind-the-scenes stories anymore. News reports take us behind the scenes all the time. No, to win the campaign book race, the authors have to take readers inside the brains of the major players in a campaign. We have to know their very thoughts. (The voters', not so much; super-inside journalists don't seem as interested in them.) Like it or not, Game Change is the campaign book of the next few campaigns. Given its success—it zoomed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—there are surely more such books on the way, including one by Heilemann and Halperin, who have signed a $5 million contract for a 2012 book. Look for lots of imitations from authors who would like to get in on the inside action.
Game Change begins in the brain—and the bed—of Barack Obama. "Barack Obama jerked bolt upright in bed at three o'clock in the morning," Heilemann and Halperin write. "He found himself wide awake, heart pounding, consumed by a thought at once electric and daunting: I might win this thing."
In Game Change, when you see italics, you know you're going inside; Heilemann and Halperin reserve italics for their juiciest deep-cortex revelations. For example, when Obama first read in Rolling Stone a report on Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermons, the authors confide, "Staring at Wright's incendiary words on the page, Obama thought, This doesn't sound real good." When advisor David Axelrod showed Obama a video of a Democratic debate performance, "[Obama] grimaced. It's worse then I thought ran through his mind." And on Obama's hesitance to initiate a rapprochement with Bill Clinton: "I'd be happy to call if it would make a difference, Obama thought. But why waste my time if the guy's just going to keep crapping all over me?"
Hillary Clinton had italicized innermost thoughts, too. "I don't have anything to apologize for, she thought," write the authors about Clinton's disinclination to apologize for her vote to authorize the Iraq war. "You want me to apologize for the fact that the president is an idiot?" (The president was George W. Bush.) After receiving a briefing on her campaign's finances, Clinton thought, "Where in God's name did all the money go? This campaign is a money pit."
And don't forget John Edwards, who is more awful in Game Change than in the National Enquirer. Deeply disappointed by his distant second-place finish in Iowa, Edwards balked at trying to spin it as good news: "When he first learned the outcome from his number crunchers," Heilemann and Halperin write, "what he thought was, Well, we're f----d." Ask yourself: were truer words ever spoken?
Heilemann and Halperin have fewer italicized quotes from the brains of Republican candidates. That makes sense. The authors are certainly more sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans in their day-to-day reporting, so it's no surprise that they would be more on the Democratic wavelength. Still, top McCain campaign aides were happy to trash Sarah Palin for the authors. But you've heard that before.
With all its inside stuff, Game Change is an undeniably good read, the best account of the Clinton-Obama battle that has been written. Its gossipy feel has bothered some observers, but if the authors are debasing the campaign-book genre, they're debasing it in an enjoyable way. Given all that, the odd thing is why everyone got so agitated about the book in the first place. When Game Change was published, it caused a sensation in the political village and virtually took over cable TV. Yet today, try to remember what all the fuss was about and very few things come to mind. Most of all, it was this: the authors quoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid discussing Obama's political advantages as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." That was big news at the time, leading Reid to apologize and Obama to grant absolution. But when read in the context of the book, the "Negro dialect" remark is a throwaway; it comes and goes with no narrative importance. It just got everybody excited for a while—and helped shoot Game Change up the bestseller lists.
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Richard Wolffe's Renegade is a different sort of inside account. As a reporter, Wolffe was deeply in the tank for Obama. As an author, he has produced the story Obama wanted him to tell. ("Based on Exclusive Interviews with Barack Obama," says the cover.) Wolffe's account is an adoring tale of an improbable journey to the White House. (Obama loves to use the word "improbable" about himself, because it both emphasizes his longshot status and suggests the racial issue, without saying either.)
The problem is, the candidate spun Wolffe non-stop, 24/7. Take this selection from one of Obama's interviews with the author:
"This is a very improbable candidacy, it's fair to say," Obama told me, slowing his words to measure every phrase with precision. "And for me to win, it's important that those qualities that got me into politics in the first place, those values that led me to become a community organizer or a civil rights attorney, a passion for justice and fairness, that those attributes comes through."
Where else can you find hard-hitting, deep-digging stuff like that? The Obama in Renegade is brilliant, cool, committed, and, of course, poised to make history. The people around him are sharp, too, even while lacking the candidate's star quality. David Plouffe is a "steel-edged operative." David Axelrod is a "razor-sharp mind in a shambling body."
Every now and then in Renegade, a moment arrives when it seems Obama might reveal something, some tiny thing, about himself. "You know, I actually believe my own bullshit," Obama told Wolffe with a smile. But what for a nanosecond seemed like candor—would the candidate actually examine his own B.S.?—was just another talking point, as he explained to Wolffe that he truly wanted to bring change to America for better health care, for better schools, and especially for "the kid on the streets."
Renegade sold nowhere near as many copies as Game Change, but it did have one big fan: Barack Obama. The president liked it so much he has given Wolffe the run of the White House for a second volume. The access-hungry White House press has grumbled about that, since Wolffe has left Newsweek and now works in public relations (in addition to appearing on left-wing provocateur Keith Olbermann's program on MSNBC). But the resident of the Oval Office can do what he wants, so look for a Renegade-Goes-to-the-White-House book soon. And don't forget the TV show; in late April, a London-based production company announced it was developing a miniseries based on Renegade.
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It is not surprising to learn that Obama, who has written two books about himself, is fond of encouraging others to write books about himself. After playing literary agent for Wolffe, he tried again with Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, authors ofT he Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election. "I think the whole election was a novel," he told Balz and Johnson.
If you think about it, you've got the first African-American with a chance at the seat, first woman with a chance at the seat. You've got this aging—scratch ‘aging,' because I don't want to offend John—but I mean you've got this war hero. You have a whole cast of characters at the beginning who are fascinating in their own right.
Obama quickly added a list of supporting characters: Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, Joe the Plumber. "It's a pretty fascinating slice of Americana," he said. And since this interview occurred during the transition, after Obama had won the big contest, there would of course be no doubt who would be the star of the show.
If the president-elect was hoping that Balz or Johnson might crank out the great campaign novel of 2008, he was sadly mistaken. There are no great novels entitled The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election. But the two veteran Washington Post journalists did produce a solid, well-reported, and perceptive account of the campaign that, while it lacks Game Change's flash, tells the 2008 story in a more comprehensive way than any other book.
They got some good stuff, too. For example, the authors show us the striking, and ultimately decisive, differences between the Obama and Clinton camps in late 2006, when each was gearing up for a White House run. Balz and Johnson obtained a memo Axelrod wrote to Obama in November 2006 which pushed hard to get Obama to realize that he couldn't just waltz through a presidential campaign. Facing the Clinton machine, he would be hit with a lot of questions he would rather ignore. "How many times did you use cocaine and marijuana?" Axelrod asked. "When did you stop? Who did you buy it from? Did you sell drugs? Have you broken any other laws?" There would be a lot of punches aimed at a candidate whose ability to take a punch was entirely unknown. "When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched," Axelrod wrote Obama. He'd have to do better if he wanted to beat Clinton.
Contrast that to the memo that Balz and Johnson include (first published in the Atlantic), sent by adviser Mark Penn to Clinton in December of the same year. "We have incredible strengths," Penn wrote. "We have the highest levels of early enthusiasm for any Democratic candidate in modern history—people don't just like Hillary Clinton, they love her." Penn's company, of course, was drawing zillions of dollars from Clinton's campaign, and for advice that wasn't nearly as sharp as Axelrod's.
Like Game Change, The Battle for America 2008 tilts toward Democrats; the section on their primary race is about two-and-a-half times as long as the account of the Republicans. Of course, the Democratic race was longer and harder-fought, but even so, the book seems a bit more in tune with Democrats than Republicans. Still, Balz and Johnson have produced a well-done book that should have been more successful than it was. If only they had gotten someone to utter the word "Negro."...
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Shortly before writing this review, I asked a very close aide to John McCain whether McCain or the aide had read these or other campaign books. "Neither he nor I have read any of the books," the aide responded. "Remember on the campaign—he said books will be written and [will conclude, predictably but hastily, that] the campaign that wins will be the best-run campaign ever, and the campaign that loses will be the worst." It's true. In many accounts, the Obama campaign comes out looking like the greatest thing since—well, ever. That's due to a number of factors. First, the campaign was in fact good. Second, some in the press virtually worshipped Obama. Third, reporters wanted to stay on good terms with Obama sources once they moved to Washington. And fourth, the immutable law of post-defeat campaign bitterness and recrimination kicked in, big time.
When a campaign succeeds and everybody heads to the White House, there is not a lot to be angry and depressed about, and even if there is, staffers are less likely to trash campaign colleagues who have gone on to become White House colleagues. But when a campaign loses, you could get poked in the eye from all the pointing fingers. Sources are happy to tell reporters everything about the campaign, especially if it shows what idiots their colleagues were.
By and large, it's the anger and bitterness that make for the most interesting stuff in post-campaign accounts. Game Change, for instance, would be far, far less interesting were it not for all the unhappiness emanating from the Clinton campaign. What Heilemann and Halperin were able to do was dig a little deeper into the anger than other authors.
So what does the future hold for the campaign book? It's commonplace to say that 2008 was the race of a lifetime. That's true—it would be pretty hard to top. But there will be a lot of publishing money out there for a super-inside account of the 2012 campaign, maybe by Heilemann and Halperin, maybe by somebody else. The problem is, what if the race is a yawner? A super-inside account of a not-so-momentous election won't capture anyone's imagination—or earn back a $5 million advance. In the end, it might turn out that 2008 breathed new, but fleeting, life into the campaign book simply because the race was so riveting. The next time around could remind us that Teddy White is still dead.