Book Review: 'The Battle for America' by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson

By Ted Widmer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009


By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson

Viking. 432 pp. $29.95

Not too long ago, I predicted that a solid recent history of the 2008 election (Richard Wolffe's "Renegade") was likely to be the final word until President Obama wrote his own version of those storied events. A few months later, it appears that the conveyor belt is just getting started and that we will be reading about 2008 for a while to come. My bad!

The latest entry is an impressive effort delivered by two seasoned Washington reporters, Dan Balz, the lead political reporter for The Washington Post, and Haynes Johnson, a Post veteran and a much-published author. It draws upon their extensive daily coverage of the campaign and the many interviews they were able to secure, and has now appeared in several forms in these pages, first as daily beat stories, then as book excerpts.

The story does not suffer from retelling, and, indeed, it is refreshing to read it again, a mere 12 months after the election that closed one book but opened so many others. "The Battle for America" boldly asserts its own importance in its title, and unlike many such pronouncements, it largely delivers. Through a judicious blend of facts, anecdotes, close-ups and wide-angle shots, it retells the story of the rise of a politician who was by no means foreordained to win the presidency, but is now so ubiquitous that he has nearly trademarked the letter O.

The book opens with a perfect visual image expressing the audacity of Barack Obama's hope: his small six-seat plane on a tarmac in Selma, Ala., immobilized by a dead battery, next to the sleek Gulfstream commandeered by Sen. Hillary Clinton. Of course, it is not quite right to say that Obama was without resources -- as the book goes on to show. He was a formidable challenger well before his victory in the Iowa caucuses confirmed his electoral clout, and the staggering amounts of money he raised in the earliest stages of the campaign indicate that it was never safe to consider Hillary Clinton predestined to win the nomination, as so many retellings of the great campaign of 2008 do. Money was a crucial determinant in this race, as Balz and Johnson go to some lengths to convey, and many of the missteps committed by the Clinton campaign were simply mistakes of bad spending -- too much here, too little there.

As you would expect, there is a lot of good reporting in this book. Some memorable quotes appear, even after we think we've heard it all. "I'm LeBron, baby!," Obama opines after a successful Iowa speech. God knows how they were able to read Sarah Palin's emails ("Yes yes yes pls let me say this!!!"), complete with the three exclamation points, but there they are.

Balz and Johnson make a number of good arguments about how the election might easily have turned another way: if, for example, the all-important sequence of primaries had been altered, if the Florida and Michigan Democratic primaries had counted, if the Clinton team had ignored South Carolina rather than contesting a relatively small state they had little chance of winning, if Hillary Clinton had a better answer for one question in a debate (about driver's licenses for immigrants), if McCain had shown a grasp of financial leadership during the meltdown of September.

The book has many strengths, but three stories are told especially well. The first and most obvious is that of Obama's rise. Balz and Johnson had extensive access to the campaign's top advisers, particularly David Axelrod and David Plouffe, whose own version of events, "The Audacity to Win," came out last week. The second story is that of Hillary Clinton's redemption as a candidate -- finding her voice and displaying astonishing grit on the campaign trail, even after (maybe especially after) the numbers had turned against her. If Obama's triumph was that of a newcomer who won the presidency, then hers was more of a personal vindication: She proved to her naysayers on the left and right that she belonged in the race. The third story is that of John McCain, also something of an insider/outsider, and the very difficult balancing act he was trying to achieve, sailing both with and against the winds generated by the Bush presidency.

Like the campaign itself, the book loses some momentum when the ferocious energy of the Democratic contest is spent, and all we have left is the actual election of the president of the United States. But from start to finish, Balz and Johnson leaven the narrative with inside scoops: the nasty spats that were brewing inside the Clinton brain trust; the funks that settled inside Obama's team as she fought back; and the way Sarah Palin began to turn McCain's Straight Talk Express into a train wreck as she started going rogue for the first of what one suspects will be many times in her career as a television diva.

Although the book recognizes that something unprecedented happened in 2008, it doesn't always explain the new wiring that allowed these startling pictures to emerge. For example, there is little on how the Internet and social networks like Facebook revolutionized the arts of campaigning and fundraising, and how nearly all of these benefits redounded to the Obama team. Balz and Johnson are old-school guys, and that is not exactly a criticism -- they bring a lot of knowledge to the table. But there is more to this story, and someday a 25-year-old will write it. A year after the great campaign of 2008, the battle for America endures, as we can see anywhere we look -- at the Nobel Peace Prize kerfuffle, a rising cacophony on the talk-show right, the elections last Tuesday. But thanks to this book, we have a pretty good sense of where we are and how we got here.

Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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