Tuesday, 13 January 2009

“A Long Time Coming”, by Evan Thomas et al. (PublicAffairs)

Newsweek-ALongTimeComingAn illuminating behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 election

For anyone missing the heady news days of this past election cycle, A Long Time Coming will fill the hole created by its end. In a now time-honoured tradition (the first post-election book was released in 1984), Evan Thomas and the writers of Newsweek were allowed uncensored access to the candidates and their staffs on an embargoed basis – nothing was to be published until after the election itself. The results are impressive and entertaining.

The book is split into seven chronological chapters (plus intro, epilogue and a bonus interview with Obama). At first, they alternate between Obama’s and McCain’s primary campaigns – Obama’s vicious, grinding battle with the Clinton machine, the Clinton campaign’s infighting and self-immolation; McCain’s near political death (the chapter’s titled “Back from the Dead”), and subsequent victory, months ahead of an end to the Democratic contest (which he was never able to fully take advantage of). Then we move on to the national campaign, and two distinct characters emerge: Obama, clear-headed and calm, professorial, self-aware, and in control of his team. McCain, on the other hand, seems a little at sea, events spiraling out of his control with a needy base and unnecessary constraints on his character. The debates are analysed, and McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice-president is covered in-depth, as are the resultant problems she causes for McCain by going “rogue”, later described by staffers as a “wacko” and “diva”. (Obama’s choice of Biden is dealt with rather quickly.)

Obama’s and McCain’s staffers are also described: from David Axelrod as the somewhat paranoid Obama campaign manager, to Senator Lindsay Graham, who appears to play the role of security-blanket for McCain (not in a pathetic way, that’s just the best way to describe him, I think), offering light relief and, along with Mark Salter, a friendly face and familiar foil.

There is no disguising Thomas’s excitement at the prospect of a President Obama: “Hyperbole around elections comes easy and cheap, but this is a moment – a year – when even superlatives cannot capture the magnitude of the change that the country voted for on November 4, 2008.” He goes on to compare the 2008 election with FDR’s 1932 victory and Reagan’s 1980 victory as historical political shifts. Thomas’s enthusiasm luckily doesn’t get the better of him, as he is always diligent to bring things back to earth, highlighting either areas that will prove difficult for Obama (the economy, biggest of all), and also pointing out the occasional flaw in Obama himself.

While the idea of an uncensored back-stage look at the election might make some think this book is filled with deep and dark moments when one candidate shreds another to an aide, this is not the case. What you will find, instead, is an honest, non-sanitised look at the main players in the 2008 election. For those of us who were fond of McCain but disappointed with his campaign, you will find a portrait of an irascible man in the middle of a process that appears to have run away from him, straightjacketed by advisors and consultants. I can’t imagine hardcore Republicans will enjoy this book too much, as there are times when the reporting from the Obama campaign can have the feel of coming from someone who drank (a lot of) the Kool-Aid, and Palin in certainly taken apart.

For those who were on the fence about Obama, the book will serve as an endearing reintroduction – the book paints a picture of a self-confident man, a more realistic portrait to the character than has been described in the media and by celebrities (e.g. Oprah’s “the One”). He appears funny (I laughed out loud at least twice because of jokes or quips attributed to Obama), cautious, somewhat geeky, but also very human. In fact, this book offers a far more attractive portrayal of the candidate than that offered on the trail.

I devoured this book in two sittings (I had to sleep in between, otherwise it would have been one). The writing is tight and fluid (as one should expect from Newsweek), and the book contains plenty of interesting anecdotes and tidbits to entertain any political junky or casual observer. Collating all the main events and facts from the campaigns, this is a very highly recommended book, and easily one of the best political ones I’ve read in a while.

Thomas cannot resist bringing up the comparisons between Obama and Lincoln in the epilogue. Sure, Obama has made these comparisons himself in The Audacity of Hope, but Thomas rightly also draws comparisons with FDR and LBJ, warning against unrealistic exuberance, reminding us that Obama is “human like the rest of us.”

With Obama’s inauguration still a week away, only time will tell if his familiarity with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals translates to the emulation of Lincoln’s bipartisanship, helping him bring the country together to fix growing crises. Here’s to hoping…

Complimentary Reading (a selection): Joshua Green’s “The Front-Runner’s Fall (The Atlantic, September 2008 – about disastrous infighting in Clinton’s campaign); “The Atlantic’s 2008 Presidential Election Supplement” (October 2008); James Wenner’s “How Obama Won” (Rolling Stone, November 27, 2008); Matt Taibbi’s “Requiem for a Maverick” (Rolling Stone, November 27, 2008); “Campaign ‘08 in Rolling Stone

Others in the series: “The Quest for the Presidency - 1988”, “Back From the Dead - 1996”, “Election 2004: How Bush Won and What You Can Expect in the Future” (The first two are actually quite difficult to get ahold of in the UK, but the 2004 book is still readily available from Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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