Tuesday, 23 February 2010

New books: The battle for the White House

The US election campaign in 2008 was one of the most exciting presidential races in recent years. Not only because virtually any outcome would result in a historic first (the first black president, the first female president, the first Mormon president or the oldest president ever to be sworn in), but also because of its intensity and length, with the Democratic nomination fight going on all the way to June rather than finishing in the winter.
Many books have already been written about the campaign, but the latest addition, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (the UK edition is titled Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House), seems already to have ascertained its place as the classic account.
It is indeed a gripping account and a book which is hard to put down, offering much new insight into what went on behind the scenes during that dramatic campaign. Thus it can be recommended to anyone with an interest in US politics or election campaigns in general, but it also has some obvious weaknesses.
The most serious one is that no sources are given. The authors maintain that they have spoken to most people mentioned in the book, but as no sources are ever identified, it is difficult to evaluate the credibility of what we are told.
Another, but lesser, weakness is that the Democratic campaign is given much more space than the Republican. This can be defended for two reasons – that it lasted longer and was therefore more exciting, and that the Democrats won the election. But 270 pages on the Democratic primaries and less than fifty out of the book’s about 450 pages on the Republicans, followed by 100 pages on the general election campaign, is a very uneven balance which left me wishing to know more about how John McCain became the Republican nominee.
It might seem that the Republicans, as so often before, chose to nominate the party elder who was “next in line”. Yet, as the authors do acknowledge, McCain was at a certain stage almost counted out of the race. He ran a fairly amateurish campaign, but still managed to stage a comeback and win the nomination. It might have improved the book if they had tried harder to explain how that came about.
The book is very much centred on the people, particularly Barack Obama, the Clinton couple, John McCain and Sarah Palin, and to a certain extent John Edwards. There are some entertaining bits, such as Hillary Clinton not wanting to be Vice President because she had already been so, and Obama not wanting to choose her to be VP because he thought one could not possibly have three presidents in the White House.
But the focus on the persons and their actions and choices leaves little place for issues and strategies. Having read the book one may have got a better picture of how Obama won, but not why he won. What were the issues, if any, which made him stand out among the contenders? And little is said about the Obama campaign’s quite innovative mobilisation of the “grass roots”.
The authors take little, if any, human considerations. With their strengths and weaknesses, Obama and Hillary Clinton emerge from it with the fewest bruises, while Bill Clinton is portrayed as a troublesome block around the foot of his wife’s campaign and a loose gun on deck, but who still did his “duty” in the end.
Few of the main players in this book make such a bad impression as that ambitious, conceited and deceitful John Edwards. Not even his terminally ill wife, Elizabeth Edwards (who is now divorcing him after he has acknowledged what is said almost straight out in this book – that he was indeed the father of the child born to one of his campaign workers), is spared.
But then Sarah Palin comes along. An unreliable populist who was prone to blame her failures on anyone but herself, whose gross ignorance involved such things as having no idea why North and South Korea were two nations and not possibly being able to remember if her Democrat counterpart’s name was Joe Obiden or Joe O’Biden, yet believed her nomination for Vice President was the will of God. The book makes it clear that the choice of Palin to be McCain’s running mate was made only at the last moment, after it had become clear that they could not go through with picking the independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, and was made in such a haste that there was almost no time to check her credentials in a proper way.
John McCain himself seems more sympathetic. But when one reads about his recklessness, his temper which apparently made it nearly impossible to utter a sentence without the F word, how he in the wake of the financial crisis insisted on a bipartisan White House meeting yet wasted the time to prepare for it by chatting with his wife about tonight’s dinner on the phone before contributing absolutely nothing to the meeting, and not least the irresponsibility by which he, a 72-year-old cancer survivor, without any proper vetting chose such a person as Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, it seems clear that the reason why he lost the election was probably not only because of Barack Obama’s strengths, but also because John McCain himself had little to offer his country when it came to leadership and was himself unfit for the presidency.

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