Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The Making of a President
By Richard Wolffe
Crown. 356 pp. $26
Given how often Barack Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy, it makes sense that we now have a Camelot-style report on the great campaign of '08. Kennedy's election was a literary as well as a political watershed, inspiring writers whose taut and sardonic style mirrored that of JFK himself. Not long after the election, Theodore White broke big with the publication of "The Making of the President, 1960," a classic of political reporting that covered the campaign with a novelist's sense of drama and a stenographer's sense of detail. It has been imitated many times since, including by White himself, who dutifully put himself through the same paces every four years, sweating out similar books all the way through 1972 but never duplicating the caffeinated energy of the original. Despite hundreds of campaign books since then, no one else has either.
More consciously than most, Richard Wolffe has now entered the Teddy White sweepstakes with "Renegade: The Making of a President." The connection is right there in the title, and from the very first words there is little doubt what he is up to. Wolffe covered the Obama campaign for Newsweek, and at times he seems to be channeling White (who had been a Time reporter), referring to his protagonist as "the candidate" and deploying short, dramatic sentences that heighten the air of mystery about the transfer of power. Wolffe's first sentence ("Election day starts, in the small hours, where the candidate has spent most of his last 626 days: on a plane."), like White's ("It was invisible, as always."), comes straight out of Hemingway 101.
"Renegade" stakes an audacious claim to its own importance and largely lives up to it. Like White, Wolffe was lucky in several ways, beginning with the fact that the campaign he chose to cover was exceptionally historic. But he was also granted unusual access to the candidate, and one of the book's more interesting episodes reveals that it was Obama who came up with the idea of Wolffe's project, nudging him forward with a casual remark ("Why can't you write a book about it? Like Theodore White. Those are great books.")
"Renegade" tells the whole amazing story, restating how unlikely it seemed, only two years ago, that President Obama would ever be identified as such. When the campaign started, he was 99th out of 100 senators in seniority. In 2000, he couldn't even gain admission to the Democratic convention, and his credit card was declined when he tried to rent a car in L.A. Wolffe explores all of the ups and downs of 2008, relaying anecdotes both new and familiar. There are not quite as many flashbulb revelations as I expected, beyond a horrifying glimpse into just how directionless the Bush White House was at the time of the economic collapse last fall and some provocative suggestions that the Obama marriage was in trouble around 2000, when his political ambitions were surfacing.
But the book is clear, concise and well written, effectively retelling a story that still astonishes us, even after we all lived through it last year.
Which is not quite to say that this is "The Making of the President, 2008." Wolffe lacks the voracious appetite for detail that characterized White's books, and he spends almost no time on the other aspirants. He also deviates from White's model of telling the story the old-fashioned way, from beginning to end. The chapters are lively and well-informed, but some continuity is missing, and quite a few state primaries are ignored or dumbed down. White spent a great deal of attention on the power structures of each region: the urban bosses who would deliver votes in return for backroom promises, the Southern overlords of the Democratic party, the fissures within the Republican Party. This book lacks that sort of comprehensive detail, focusing instead on its protagonist, who is admittedly fascinating -- but so was JFK, and White went well beyond him. No particular light is shed on the big efforts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina -- and none at all in less scrutinized places like Missouri, where Obama narrowly beat Hillary Clinton with 49 percent of the vote to 48 percent, a crucial step on the way to his victory. The chief drama revolves around Obama-Clinton more than Obama-McCain, and we are shown glimpses of the agitation that Clinton's perseverance was causing inside the Obama team. But we are told little of the genuine policy differences that separated them or of the random factors (the spike in gas prices) that also entered into the complex calculus of 2008.
Still, the book will please the millions who lived and died with every test of the campaign and should satisfy a hunger to know more about the person at the center of these gravity-defying events. To some extent, Wolffe faces a problem that all writers about Obama have, namely, that it is difficult to write better about the man than Obama himself has already done. But he effectively explores the paradox of the "quiet renegade" (Obama's Secret Service handle) who rewrote all of the rules of American politics while barely breaking a sweat. Obama, the son of an anthropologist, offers gnomic observations about the political process (interestingly, he admires Ronald Reagan), keeps his head when those around him have lost theirs and retains his likeability throughout, even when complaining that all media scrutiny reminds him of a "public colonoscopy." If so, this book will signal a return to the proctologist, but only for a relatively harmless check-up.
Like White, Wolffe obviously favors the man he dubs "the candidate." But to his credit, he points out the occasional imperfection (some fudging on the issues of campaign finance and NAFTA, for example) and reveals a politician ready to play very hard to win, even while claiming to be above the politics of anger. Wolffe flavors the book with his own opinions -- including the arresting thought that the intemperate sermons of Obama's then-pastor, Jeremiah Wright, might easily have been discovered before the Iowa caucus, which would likely have boxed in Obama at the start.
Near the beginning of their collaboration, Obama asked Wolffe whether there would be enough drama in a story that merely reflected a successful realization of a vision ("What happens if we just had a plan and then went out and said, let's execute it?"). That, in a nutshell, is exactly what happened in 2008. But, yes, there is enough drama, and then some, in "Renegade." It is surely not the final word -- but it is as close as we are likely to get until Obama's aides begin to write their version of an extraordinary American story that is still unfolding.
Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.