Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Making of the President, 2008

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson serve up the quintessential insider account of an election to remember with
The Battle for America 2008

The following review was published yesterday at the books page of the History News Network.

We're often told that journalism is the first draft of history, but no one takes that truism more to heart than Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson. Balz, who covers politics for the Washington Post, is co-author of Deadlock, an extended piece of reporting on the 2000 election published within weeks of George W. Bush's inaugural 2001. Johnson, a former Post reporter, has long specialized in chronicling events like Lyndon Johnson presidency and Watergate soon after they were resolved, and may be best known for Sleepwalking through History, his survey of the Reagan years published in 1991. In The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election they turn their attention to the last presidential election in a narrative manner comparable to that of their inspiration, Theodore.H. White, who analyzed the elections of 1960-1972 in a series of influential books. (White provides the epigraph of this one, which is dedicated to the late Tim Russert.)

So it is bo
th praise and criticism, though more the former than the latter, to say that there's very little new here for anyone that followed the election closely. Moving at a fast narrative clip, the authors begin with the mood of the country late in the Bush years, move sequentially through the Democratic primaries (which, not surprisingly, take up much of the book), the Republican primaries and then on to the general election. Along the way, we are re-introduced to major characters like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain and their competitors, as well as lesser ones like Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayres, and Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. "Joe the Plumber."

The authors portray a Clinton who improved as a campaigner even as her organization disintegrated, an Obama who was at least as impressive in his resilience in the aftermath of surprise defeats like the New Hampshire primary as he was in his string of victories, and a McCain who honored his true nature in rolling the dice with Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate and lost because his bet because was not ready for prime time. (Speaking of which: this is also an account that has room for Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and a cameo appearance by Bruce Springsteen.) It was an election that began with anxiety and anger over the Iraq War, and one that ended with anxiety and anger at the state of the collapsing economy. The authors believe that McCain's erratic behavior in trying to manage a balky Republican coalition in the crisis that finally cost him the election.

It's worth emphasizing: this is very much an inside-the-beltway account. The principals pretty much say what you expect, though there is an element of novelty and value in that much of what they do say is directly to the authors, who had access to them during as well as after the campaign. They also avail themselves of pollster Peter Hart's focus group data, which gives them insight into the views of ordinary voters, though there is a bit of a freeze-dried feel to this material, as it has a literally clinical quality, as opposed to, say, field work. Their research stays largely focused on the professional players, and their account is almost ostentatious in its even-handedness. They allow themselves a single metaphorical parallel, involving the opening scene in which Obama is stranded on an airport runway, and a late one in which he jets in for a rally in Manassas, Virginia, site of the Civil War's first battle.

The Battle for America is a book built for immediate commercial impact, published by James Silberman of Viking Books, one of the grand old men of publishing. As such, it's not surprising that it's currently enjoying a stay on the New York Times bestseller list. But this may be a rare case of a book you that won't mind buying and never get around to reading for years, because its value is sure to grow with the passage of time. You'll read it and say, "Oh yeah! I forgot about that." And for those who will inevitably interpret -- and reinterpret -- what will almost surely be seen as a watershed election, this book will embody the conventional wisdom, whether as a source of credibility or an illustration of the problem, whatever that problem will be, in the way people understood what proved to be one of the more exciting events of our lifetimes.