" Race of a Lifetime" is a blow-by-blow account of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. It contains few truly new revelations, but it maintains its pace and mildly prurient interest from beginning to end.
"Race" belongs to the school of "omniscient journalism." Its authors report not only what protagonists did and said ("F-bombs" and all) but also what they thought at the time. John Heileman and Mark Halperin, both established journalists ("New York" magazine and "Time", respectively), construct their narrative from a base of 300 interviews with over 200 people, including several of the principals. Since these interviews were "deep background," there are few attributions to specific sources. The account appears to be substantially accurate, though I understand that Sarah Palin's staff have disputed how their boss is portrayed - and well they might, since she is documented as "catatonic", ill informed, less than fully truthful and off message. Not worthy of high office, in other words. Hopefully this message will stick.
Most of the book addresses the epic struggle between Hillary Clinton and Obama in the Democratic primary as Clinton's seemingly assured victory melted away and Obama's quixotic insurgency morphed into a Movement. There is a brief digression to cover John Edwards' doomed bid: Edwards is revealed to be the egomaniac, sleazebag that we had suspected all along, though it was surprising to learn that his wife, tragically afflicted by cancer, is not the saint suggested by her public image but rather an unpleasant, vindictive bully. Once Obama wins the nomination, the focus turns to his battle with McCain. The earlier part of the Republican contest is barely covered, and by this time McCain is already on the way to losing, damned by his impetuous and ill-researched choice of Palin as his running mate and the exposure by the sudden financial crisis of his economic illiteracy.
The story of the campaigns is pretty much as expected: the massive demands on the candidates' physical and psychic stamina, the huge war chests needed every step of the way, the temporary victories, setbacks and bounce backs, the incessant bickering among campaign staff, the crude deals struck or implied with financial supporters and putative kingmakers and the ever rattling sexual skeletons in the closets of virtually every candidate - Obama being the principal exception. There is little substantive discussion of policy. Whether this is a reflection of fact or a bias in the reporting is not clear but it is probably the former - as Obama's law school mentor, Chris Edley comments "a focus group isn't policy-making."
The account is enlivened by numerous anecdotes: how Mitt Romney enters the men's room just before a Republican debate to find all of his rivals lined up at the urinals joking about how each of them detest him; of how Bill "Big Dog" Clinton lost his cool in a conversation with Ted Kennedy and undid a career long record of non-racism by snapping that "a few years ago, this guy (Obama) would be fetching us coffee"; how the Obamans were so worried about Joe Biden blowing the vice presidential debates that they not only enlisted Michigan Governor, Jennifer Granholm to act as Palin in a rehearsal, but they also rehearsed Granholm for the rehearsal against a stand-in for Biden; how an "undecided" voter in Ohio told a focus group that she feared that Obama might be a Muslim and soft on terrorists and when asked in return how, given that fear, she could remain undecided, responded " because if McCain dies Palin would be president."
Both Clinton and Obama come across quite well in the account. To be sure, Clinton is as ambitious, ruthless, convinced of her own entitlement and flexible in her positions as we thought, but she is also tough, smart, exceptionally well prepared, continuously learning and phenomenally hard working. Deep down, she is shown to have a core of principle, ideals, duty and patriotism. Arguably, she did deserve to win, for if anyone ever earns these things, she did.
Obama, for his part, walks on water. The authors seem in awe of him. He is cool, cerebral, rational, capable of stepping out of himself to see where he needs to adjust course or fix himself, certain in his destiny, idealist in his goals, equipped with a true moral compass, well-briefed and devoted to his family. He fights clean, announcing to his staff that "I will come out the other side as the same person I was on the way in...... if I ever catch anyone digging into the Clintons' personal lives, you will be fired." While we know today, one year into Obama's presidency, that he has his weaknesses, it is hard not to conclude in reading this book that he is a man superbly fitted to be president.
The ending of the book closes the circle by Hillary signing on as Obama's Secretary of State. He personally decides that he wants her, not merely for the political wow effect but because he believes that she is the most qualified and that she deserves it. Clinton is "anguished," she is shattered and exhausted by the campaign and just wants a normal life; she is afraid that if she accepts, Bill will somehow mess it up (though he, to his credit, rushes to make all the necessary disclosures of donors to his various causes to open the way for her). She declines. Obama won't give up until, overcome by duty and respect for the man whom until recently she despised, she reverses her decision. Obama's staff never saw their boss "prouder or more satisfied" than he was at this moment. Somehow, after all the cynical detailing of the dark side of politics, I found this uplifting.