Reading The Battle for America: The Story of an Extraordinary Election by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson feels a little like taking a trip in a "commuter" time machine--that is, one that only travels back a year or two, and not a major carrier that can take you back to the Victorian Era or the Roman Empire. The book's subtitle is not an exaggeration. It certainly was an extraordinary election and you can relive it page by page in this compulsively readable book.
We now feel solidly in the "Obama Era," but The Battle for America will remind you that virtually no one--certainly not the mainstream pundits and bloggers--believed that the rookie Senator from Illinois had the proverbial snowball's chance in hell of surviving the primary season and defeating the "Clinton machine" as everyone was wont to call it before the wizard behind the machinery was unmasked as "a pull out all the stops" politician who would stop at virtually nothing to have another shot at living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
All the grand and not so grand moments of the campaign are here; the endless video replays of Reverend Wright saying "God Damn America"; the ads asking you who you would prefer to answer the White House phone at 3AM, debate after debate of Obama sparring with Hilary and other rivals, especially including Hilary's baby face saying "it hurts my feelings" when someone asked her why people think she's not likable, and Obama's misspoken arrogant response, "You're likable enough Hillary." The stunning Obama victory in Iowa, and Hilary's rebound in New Hampshire, including the moment where she "choked up and found her voice." The North Carolina primary, where Bill Clinton compared Obama's victory to Jesse Jackson's and then accused Obama of playing the "race card." The Super Tuesday that was supposed to settle everything and didn't.
When the book wanders across the aisle and recalls the GOP side of things, it's much duller, because what can you do with an array of candidates that included the hapless: Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, the egocentric: Rudi Giuliani, the stunningly dull: Fred Thompson, the stuffed suit: Mitt Romney, the jovial preacher, Mike Huckabee, and of course the old Navy guy we've known for years, John McCain? Most of them were tripping over one another insisting they didn't believe in evolution, they wanted to accelerate, not end the war in Iraq, they, of course would never raise your taxes like those bad "tax and spend" (one of the most tired phrases in politics) Democrats. But Balz and Johnson recall how McCain was counted out, his campaign was in disarray, and his "comeback" was made possible mostly because he was a high stakes horse running in a claiming race.
Things liven up again when Balz and Johnson takes us down memory lane to the highlights of the general election. First we re-experience the two contrasting conventions: Obama and his Greek columns speaking to multitudes, and McCain getting upstaged by his disastrous VP choice, Sarah Palin. We can recall with distinct pleasure her rousing speech at the convention in which she informed us that the primary difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick. In retrospect, this speech, which the GOP conventioneers loved, told us a great deal about the level of discourse she would bring to the campaign. In fact, much of the story of the McCain general election campaign is really about Sarah Palin, the gift that kept on giving to the Democrats. Hardly had she been selected when various scandals began to accrue around her: her pregnant teen-age daughter, her totally incompetent and disastrous TV interviews (especially with Katie Couric; where she couldn't name a newspaper she read nor a Supreme Court verdict she disagreed with--it came across like one of Jay Leno's "jaywalking" skits), her overpriced and extensive campaign wardrobe, totally at odds with the just plain folks "hockey mom" image she was trying to project. Probably her best moment in the campaign was the debate with Biden. Even though Biden was clearly a lot more informed than she was, and she hardly answered a single question she was asked without wandering off to campaign talking points, her "folksy" charm did come through ("Can I call you Joe?" ) from the start.
Nonetheless, as the weeks and months passed, McCain's judgment in choosing her in the "heartbeat" away from the presidency role tipped a lot of votes toward Obama. This was the man who said he would put his country above his self-interest and his party, and his first signal is to choose someone obviously not qualified to serve that country. The infighting in the McCain campaign about the Palin choice and about her subsequent inept performance is one of the inside stories the book opens up to us, but for the most part, there's not much new here, just a deliciously told (especially for political junkies) rendition of things we already know.
The campaign got ugly (prefiguring, by the way, the ugliness of the current health care debate) when audiences got fired up by Palin's telling them that Obama liked to "pal around with terrorists" and shouted and screamed about saving the country from socialism. Many of the rowdy crowds attending some of these events were openly racist, and at one of them McCain had to calm things down by telling one of his questioners that Obama was not a Muslim, but in fact, a good family man. (As if it were quite impossible to be both.)
But the real jewels of the book come in the final chapters when we get Obama's own "take" on the campaign, which is worth quoting in some detail:
"I don't think I was the most interesting character in this election".If you think about it, you've got the first African-American with a chance at the seat, first woman with a chance".You've got this aging--scratch aging, because I don't want to offend John--but I mean you've got this war hero. You have a whole cast of character at the beginning who are fascinating in their own right, in some ways compelling just from a human perspective: John Edwards, Huckabee. And then comes the general election [and] you get Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. You've got Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers. It's a pretty fascinating slice of Americana."
Apart from Obama saying that Palin, Joe the Plumber, Wright and Ayers are a "fascinating slice of America" (I never thought of Joe especially as particularly fascinating) it's interesting that he and Hilary were competing for a major role in history: was he going to be the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics or was she going to be the Sandra Day O'Connor of it? We also learn that Obama thought Hilary was a much tougher competitor than McCain and that one of his main problems in the primary was differentiating his positions from Hilary's.
Asked what he admired most about Lincoln, after saying he thought of him as a quintessential American because he was self-made, Obama says something that reveals both his strengths and weaknesses:
"But the second thing I admire most in Lincoln is that there is just a deep-rooted honesty and empathy to the man that allowed him to always be able to see the other person's point of view and always sought to find that truth that is in the gap between you and me. Right? That the truth is out there somewhere and I don't fully possess it and you don't fully possess it and our job then is to listen and learn and imagine enough to be able to get to that truth."
This is a noble and honorable aspiration, but it is also a quality that so exasperates a lot of his followers these days who don't think "the truth" lies in the gap between a government-based health care program, for example, and one that is fully in private hands. The down side about seeing all perspectives as helpful, is not recognizing those people who are out to sink your ship rather than to help you sail it.
It also presumes a level of honest and civil debate that has long disappeared from our civic discourse. And that partially explains the difficulties Obama is facing as a President rather than as a candidate: that is that his quiet, thoughtful, rational approach to governing is not suited to the openly vicious ad hominem name calling that our political discourse has become. He sometimes comes across as "wimpy" and willing to give away the store for very small gains
A very interesting experiment conducted by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post and alluded to near the very end of The Battle for America describes the dilemma Obama faces. Weingarten locked himself in a room for twenty-four hours and surrounded by computers, television sets, and radios, took in everything he could from the famous 24/7 news cycle. He read blogs, visited political websites, listened to talk radio and cable talking heads, and generally immersed himself in wall to wall media. At first his reactions were favorable and optimistic; he saw it as a great democratic village. In one of his first dispatches from the front lines of the media wars he wrote: " There's something real about all this palaver all around me; in it's overheated, perfervid way, it's inspiring. You can't get away from that".Unfettered discourse is the sign of a robust democracy. It's a genuine war of ideas out there, being fought by highly committed people who care about the world."