Saturday, 8 August 2009

“Renegade”, by Richard Wolffe (Crown)


“The Making of a President”

The first in the second wave of books chronicling the 2008 presidential election, Renegade is based on a number of exclusive interviews with and access to the president and also considerable access to the candidate and his staff during the whole campaign. Now that the furore of election season has calmed down a bit and Obama has started to govern, it’s interesting to see what more time has done to the story of Obama’s incredible campaign. The 2008 Presidential Election, in Wolffe’s words, was an “outlandish, extraordinary spectacle that veered from inspiration to exasperation, from the mundane to the faintly insane.”

The president (then candidate) liked to describe his “journey from freshman senator to presidential front-runner as an improbable one,” and his closest aides and friends didn’t know whether or not he could survive the “trial by fire of a presidential campaign” – Axelrod, for example, wondered if Obama really had the “burning desire” to become president needed to really survive the “inhuman pace and pressures” of a campaign. Wolffe points out that, at least in the judgement of the “greatest political minds in the nation’s capital”, Obama’s run was also “preposterous and quixotic”. That being said, these great minds (and also many of the top journalists) also got a lot wrong during the campaign, underestimating both the candidate and the electorate.

Renegade is the story of how an “untested, unforged” freshman senator from Illinois navigated the crazy, turbulent waters of a presidential election, and how his young, skilled campaign team steered him to an impressive, improbable win.

Wolffe opens the book with a chapter about election night; Obama’s reaction to the death of his grandmother, who passed away the day before Election Day; the stressful-followed-by-euphoric atmosphere of the campaign on the day; Obama’s acceptance speech, and so forth. This chapter was a little long, and left me wondering (just a little) what would be the point in reading the rest of the book? Why start at the end? The chapter was good (if prone to hyperbole), but could have benefitted from being shorter.

Before getting to the campaign, Wolffe spends quite some time describing Obama’s upbringing, his relationship with his parents (his absent father and “adored and idealized” mother), and also a bit of biographical detail for his parents. In some ways, this feels like the author is just retreading the ground covered by Obama’s own memoir, Dreams from My Father. Wolffe also describes how Obama met and married Michelle (along with some more biographical info for Michelle), and then gives us a quick run-down of Obama’s political life, including his time in the Senate – how he was “surprised at the slow pace” there, and how he was disappointed how in the Chicago state legislature perhaps 100 bills could be passed in one session, whereas in the Senate the number was usually only 20.

The author then (finally) takes us back to the campaign; how, on Obama’s Christmas break in 2006, “there was a looping conversation – often with his friends but mostly in his head – about his relentless ambition, the cost to his family, the tugging gravity of history, the fleeting moment of opportunity”.

Wolffe uses some pretty grandiose vocabulary and phrases in the book. Some will find this grating (especially those who didn’t vote for Obama, but also some who did support him), as it illustrates the incredibly pedestal that President Obama has been placed upon by his own supporters, and just a bit of the hero-worship Obama can elicit in his fans. For example, Wolffe dramatises Obama’s choice to run by adding that he had “promised to clear his head and decide his future – and perhaps the course of a nation”. The extra reference to the nation is unnecessary.

This biography is well written, interesting and has the benefit of temporal-distance and hindsight to make it a more well-rounded and in-depth account of the 2008 election campaign. The distance from Election Day has also allowed the author to look more at Obama’s character, and how it wasn’t always cool and collected: “he could be cocky and grumpy, impatient and withdrawn. He was often an inscrutable character.” The general themes of the book are, of course, not particularly new given the intense media attention the 2008 election received all over the world. The author enjoyed very good access to the candidate and his staff, which certainly helped create a better book. However, the extra background details in chapter two gives the book a very slow start, which is probably its main weakness. Once the campaign starts, the book becomes a lot more interesting and in many instances riveting, even though the reader will already know the outcome. Wolffe provides plenty of background information and context, too, which is great, even if it does have a tendency to slow the pace of the book. For this attention to detail and context, Wolffe should be applauded – he has made this well-tread story feel fresh and new again.

That being said, the increased amount of depth is a welcome addition to the narrative. For me, the best content was that involving Obama’s decision to run – something that hasn’t really been covered before, whereas the campaign itself has. I can’t, however, see many people rushing to buy this if they’ve read even one of the first-wave of election books. This is a real pity, as Wolffe has done a fantastic job of pulling back the curtain on Obama’s election campaign, as well as offering a more detailed portrait of the candidate, making for a hefty, satisfying read.

The best election book so far, Renegade is an up-close, insightful, engaging, and revealing account of the 2008 election and the man who is now President of the United States.

Also try: Evan Thomas et al, A Long Time Coming (2009); David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win (2009); Haynes Johnson, The Battle for America 2008 (2009); Chuck Todd, How Barack Obama Won (2009); Larry J. Sabato, The Year of Obama (2009)

Renegade is published by Virgin Books in the UK

Review posted from Lima, Peru

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