‘The Battle for America 2008. The Story of an Extraordinary Election’ by Dan Balz & Haynes Johnson, Viking.
‘We didn’t have bank accounts, we didn’t have credit and account cards, we didn’t have any staff, we didn’t have a list of people who were going to do our first serious fund-raisers’ David Plouffe, Obama’s Campaign Manager
In this comprehensive and highly readable account of the 2008 US Presidential Campaign, Balz and Johnson provide a fascinating insiders view of an ‘extraordinary election’. Comfortably in the Theodore White tradition, their book chronicles the historic, compelling and, for most liberals, very moving rise and rise of the 44th President of the United States of America. It’s an ideal companion piece for the Ed Norton produced ‘By the People’. Such a rich cast of characters, such a great slice of American life and such a game-changing election deserves such chroniclers to do it justice.
Their portrait of Obama never veers too much from what we expect; articulate, graceful under pressure, serene, but passionate in his beliefs in the rights of the dispossessed. What is conveyed superbly is just how exhausting the 2008 long campaign was. Obama falls asleep on his feet, endlessly criss-crosses the country, gets to see less and less of his family. The young Senator is coolness personified. He has stacks of ambition but will take instruction from his team. He is Primus Inter Pares and never forgets how crucial David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Jon Favreau and Robert Gibbs are to his campaign when it comes to Strategy, Message, Speech-Crafting and Press. He wanted a staff that didn’t hardball their own team and this is largely what he got.
Balz and Johnson give the Clintons equal billing for much of their tale. And what emerges is even less pretty than outside observers thought at the time. We see a campaign run like an amateur operation, dominated by personality conflicts and one with an over-reliance on Mark Penn’s slice-n-dice view of the American electorate. The account of Bill’s phone call to Ted Kennedy asking him to endorse Hilary is priceless and says all that needs to be said about the Clintons swagger and incompetence in 2008. Bill Clinton played the race card well in advance of the GOP, much to the tarnishing of his reputation. Hilary is never presented as the cartoon villain some Obama-ites had her as but as perhaps someone who could make an excellent President if only the 1990s hadn’t happened.
John McCain is an honourable man. He respected Obama in the Senate and was a genuine reformer when he ran in 2000. But by tacking towards the Republican Right, he, no pun intended, gave over a lot of hostages to fortune; in the words of the old saw, ‘you lie down with dogs, you end up with fleas’. His strategists were masterful in getting him the GOP nomination but hopelessly divided and not up to the Obama team when it came to the General Election. He flip-flopped on running a clean campaign/dirty campaign and must have choked on his breakfast cereal on the bile his supporters generated in the run up to election day.
We get to relive all our favourite Sarah Palin moments in glorious technicolor. Gasp as this regular Hockey Mom racks up a $150,000 clothing allowance! Gaze in wonder as she tells Katie Couric about her Foreign Policy expertise! Marvel at how Tina Fey and Sarah Palin were separated at birth! Palin’s legacy has been the Fox/Rush-dittohead/Tabagging/Birther movement and the dragging down of McCain’s ratings as he headed into the drink.
Palin didn’t lose McCain the election; it was the Economy Stupid! ‘Postponing’ the campaign was a catastrophic error on McCain’s part; in Obama’s neat phrase, a President will have to handle more than one problem at a time (as indeed Obama is now – that Bush legacy again!). There were few ‘gotcha’ moments in the debates. Obama simply outplanned and outclassed his opponent.
America has its first Black President; it could easily have had its first woman Commander in Chief. Plouffe changed the political map of America. Forget the Teabagger apparent ascendancy; the GOP is an embittered, minority party. Obama may have the World’s problems on his shoulders right now. But in this time, with this man, with these hopes and ideals, he can win again in 2012. This book is an account of not just an extraordinary election but also of the extraordinary man that is Barack Hussein Obama.