Daily Archives: 24 June 2010

The Book Group’s Race of a Lifetime

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama won the White House (Penguin 2010)

Before the Book Group meeting:

This book’s US title is Game Change, with the subtitle Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. This is snappy and gives a fair idea of the book’s contents. So why the change to a lame and inaccurate title for this British edition? Maybe it was revenge on the US for renaming J K Rowling’s first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The authors say in their introduction that they set out to give ‘an intimate portrait of the candidates and spouses who (in our judgement) stood a reasonable chance of occupying the White House’ after the 2008 election. They conducted more than 300 interviews with more than 200 people between July 2008 and September 2009, while memories of the election campaign were still fresh, and produced a book bristling with direct quotes from behind the scenes. I wouldn’t describe much of it as intimate in any real sense, but it’s got a kind of gossipy fascination. The Obamas, the McCains, the Edwardses and especially the Clintons are all big characters, and all have marriages that have had to withstand unbelievable strain. Todd Palin gets mentioned quite a bit, but doesn’t become a character in his own right, and not a lot of ink is spent on Sarah Palin herself – though what there is of her is even more bizarre than the press suggested at the time.

I don’t know that the book does much to deepen the reader’s understanding of the US political system in general or the 2007–8 election campaign in particular. The main take-home message seems to be that you don’t have to be some kind of sociopath to run for President or Vice-President of the United States, but it helps. Miraculously, Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be one. One does weep for US-style democracy, at least as seen through the lens of political journalism. I found myself empathising with the widespread fear of democracy in mid nineteenth century Australia, expressed in 1853 by John Plunkett, Attorney General of the colony of New South Wales:

All serious convulsions are carried out by demagogues; as a boiling cauldron throws its scum to the top, so in all social convulsions unworthy persons will be sure to get to the top, and betray the people for their own selfish purposes. The people left to themselves, and uncontrolled, will be hurled on to ruin by the ruffians who make them their dupes.

(Quoted in Peter Cochrane, Colonial Ambition, MUP 2006, p 379)

Not that ruffians and demagogues prevailed in 2008, but one gets the impression that without ruffianly behaviour and demagoguery, and certainly not without being able to deal with lashings of both, no one could ever become Potus.

Kate Jennings’s Quarterly Essay, American revolution: The fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama, though not an insider’s account, probably casts more light on the issues at stake in the campaign and is almost as thrilling a ride. I do feel an itch to read an account as candid and thorough, and occasionally lurid, as this about an Australian election. Sadly, I doubt if even Tony Abbott, for all his lycra and chest pounding and people skills, could equal any one of a score of moments in this rip-roarer.

After the meeting:

Tonight we were five, then six and eventually seven, the last arrival being delayed by an argumentative accountant and a locked car park. The conversation folded back on itself a number of times, with recaps and revisitings. Most of us, I think, had found the book interesting, though a number hadn’t been able to finish it – the apparent weighting of the scales towards Obama was a factor (either the Clintons are actually really weird or the journalist/authors decided it was good ‘narrative’ to portray them that way), an absence of politics-tragicality on the part of the non-finishers was another: do we really care about advice from yet another aide that was disregarded by yet another candidate? As an innovation tonight was also discussed an article – on climate change – and though none of us was ardent about the article, the juxtaposition emphasised the way the book favours personality above policy and implies that the US democratic process does likewise. I think its true to say we were all shocked and awed by the sheer amount of money spent on presidential campaigns.

The fact that the ABC had been reporting a leadership challenge in Canberra meant the book’s holding power was tested. Once the conversation veered – even lunged – towards a debate about Rudd and the intense stupidity of the NSW Right of the ALP, who are largely responsible for Rudd’s losses in the polls and now (I’ve learned since coming home) have decided to dump him, none of us was wildly enthusiastic to get back to the book.