on 2 February 2010
Despite its heft this book is a page-turner, even if we all know what happens at the end. There's a good degree of detail about life in Hillaryland and Obamania that will appeal mostly to those interested in the machinations of the US political machine, yet this doesn't descend into policy wonkery (indeed, some would say neither did the Democrat campaign). It's the story of the personalities, the deep rivalries, the egos - oh, the egos! - and the media's capacity to surprise. Who now remembers the times when Wright, Ayers, guns and religion were threatening to derail Obama's candidacy? John Edwards? Giuliani?
This is, for sure, a story of the Democratic campaign: only a quarter of the book refers to the GOP although the widely trailed tidbits about Palin are both interesting to read and quite terrifying. I disagree with the reviewer who suggests that the authors are in awe of Obama: these are two very experienced journalists who understand what made him a standout candidate and the right man at the right time. There has also been criticism of the lack of sources for the work but if this is read as a piece of journalism rather than an academic history then this is not a big deal. If anyone disagreed with the narrative then you'd be sure to have heard about it.
If you're looking for a readable, enlightening reminder of the 2008 campaign then you'll find much to enjoy in this book. Recommended.
on 23 January 2010
" 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.
The best American journalism can stand comparison with any. Game Change is about as good as it gets - in the tradition of All The President's Men.
This is a blow-by-blow, almost day-by-day account of the 2008 US Presidential election, from the battle for nomination right up to the doors of the White House. Of course, we know from the outset how it will end but that gives the book its architecture. What is fascinating is the uncovering of the foundations, the bricks, the plaster, above all the emotion and the drama of the days when this or that edifice - Obama or Clinton, Obama or McCain - almost comes tumbling down, until at last one does. The race is starkly winner-takes-all, though in Hillary Clinton's case there is a substantial consolation prize.
The reviewer who raises an eyebrow at "unsubstantiated hearsay" may have skipped the Authors' Note. This makes clear that the basis for the book was "more than three hundred interviews with more than two hundred people ... in sessions that often stretched over several hours." Reasons for the authenticity of quoted dialogue are set out in detail. Certain thoughts or feelings are characterised by the use of italics. This is serious and responsible journalism. If Obama inevitably emerges as the hero, he does not do so free from criticism.
By the end, the reader will know what it was like in intimate detail for all the participants, major and minor. This is one of those rare volumes for which five stars seem inadequate.
Race of a Lifetime is the insider account of Barak Obama's stunning rise to the presidency of the United States. Co-authored by two of the country's top political journalists, it relies upon some 200 hundred off-the-record interviews with campaign insiders (we're never told which ones) and moves along with the pace of a novel.
Although Obama is the central character, the narrative revolves around other key players, principally Hillary Clinton, but also John Edwards, John McCain and Sarah Palin. It altered my opinion about Clinton - who comes across as thoroughly decent, diligent and admirable character - but reinforces what I knew about the others.
Those who saw and loved the last two brilliant series of the much-missed West Wing are in for a real treat. The powerful characters and breakneck narrative seem more in tune with a fictional creation than the staid world of politics.
Yet truth is stranger than fiction, and had that programme's creators devised characters such as Sarah Palin, they would have been accused of parody.
Palin - with the egomanic and sleazy John Edwards - comes off worst in this book, although it is her ignorance rather than cynicism or ego that is her worst sin. It remains a terrifying thought that she could have been a missed heartbeat away from being the most powerful person in the world.
One of the books' best episodes recounts her cramming sessions on forign affairs. During a lengthy primer on twentieth century history, of which she knew nothing, one ofe her aides suggests a break. "No, no, no, let's keep going," said Palin with the apparent wonderment of a child. "This is awesome."
The book should be read with a few reservations. It's certainly not (thankfully) political science, yet not even a work of journalism - which would be properly sourced - rather a piece narrative non-fiction. We have to trust the authors' integrity to faithfully and even handedly deal with their off the record sources, and for some readers that will invariably be a leap of faith too far.
Yet in my view, the book is richer and more candid for being off the record and gossipy. It's well-written, fascinating and a rare thing among books of its genre - a real page turner.
on 2 April 2010
The story starts before the campaign begins with Hillary preparing for her inauguration, months and months before the election, so certain was she of victory. But others in the Senate, particulary Harry Reid, had noticed Obama for a while and urged him to join in the race. And so it begins.
The bulk of the book focuses on Obama and HIllary fighting to get the nomination and Obama slowly but surely pulling ahead to get it. Hillary comes across as very entitled and arrogant while Bill is shown to be complacent and petty, both far from their public images. Bill's affairs are alluded to heavily, post-administration, though nothing comes up, he remains a volatile quandary for the campaign. Obama comes across throughout as a likeable, intelligent, highly motivated and ridiculously calm individual whose self confidence propelled him through the campaign and touched millions.
McCain and the GOP campaign pops up towards the end and the election proper is dealt with in 100 pages. McCain comes across and utterly obnoxious and angry, screaming at his wife, not caring about policy so gaffes like "The foundations of our economy are sound" happen, his debating comes across very badly because he doesn't want to learn, he makes bad decision after bad decision, ultimately leading to the worst decision of all - Sarah Palin.
Like most people I've got a fairly good idea of the person and the many, many problems with her candidacy are gone through again here. What was revelatory were what is called "The Two Sarahs" where she has the public image and then the catatonic, silent image with dead eyes. Her lack of knowledge is breathtaking and McCain's own staff begin fearing that if they won, she might be President.
Utterly engrossing, the story barrels along enjoyably and smoothly, reading like a novel, packed with political insight and information on how tough the campaigns are run and how tough the candidates are, as well as lots of behind the curtain news and unforgettable portraits of the leading players. An amazing book, highly recommended.
on 21 February 2010
As others have noted, this book is a gripping account of the 2008 race, full of colourful and sometimes alarming incident. I read it quickly and with great pleasure.
The book concentrates on personalities, the relationships between the candidates, their spouses and their teams and on day by day events, especially as relayed in the media. It is short on analysis and data - there are no tables of who won which primaries and by how much; no detail on who spent how much on what, or on where the money came from. It is very much an account of the what and when of Obama's victory, rather than the 'how' promised by the sub-title. There is nothing here, for example, on how he managed to make such effective use of the internet for fund-raising or on how he created a nationwide organisation more extensive than the Clintons'.
Perhaps I'm just pointing out that this is a book written by journalists not by political scientists, and that readers should set their expectations accordingly.