Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Review: "The Battle for America 2008"

OK, on the heels of finishing "The Lost City of Z", I plunged into another non-fiction tale of obsession, "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election" by Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz. As anyone who has read my prior blog entries here at "Walks in the Marsh" will know, I'm a political junkie and followed the 2008 presidential campaign obsessively myself (just click "Election 2008" in the tag cloud to see proof).

Anyhow, my obsession carried over to getting my hands on a copy "The Battle for America 2008" to revisit the two years of events that led up to the election and inauguration of President Obama. A quick read, it offers an excellent and even-handed recap of the overall primary and general election efforts with special focus on the campaigns of Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, the key personnel within each campaign, and how the views and responses of the electorate changed over the course of 24 months.

Anyone not living in a cave for the last two years will be familiar with the basic details. People addicted to the election campaign like me will know some of the more arcane lore. However, Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz provide an entirely new level of insider details as a result of their extensive interviews with key players during and after the campaign. Many of their observations aren't exactly new but the presentation of these observations in the context of campaign e-mails, focus group commentaries, and the words of the candidates themselves make for engaging reading.

Two elements are of particular fascination to the authors. First, they clearly illustrate the evolution of the campaigns and illustrate just how long the odds were for Barack Obama. Take for example, the anecdote of how, following an early campaign visit, Obama was sitting in a cramped 6-seat charter airplane as Hillary and Bill Clinton roll up in their motorcades, emerge, and take off in their Gulfstream jet. And Obama? His departure was delayed by the need to find a long extension cord with which to jump start the dead battery in his plane.

Secondly, they are unsparing in their dissection of the crippling dysfunction in the Clinton and McCain campaigns. At times, each campaign comes across as the Democratic and Republican versions of the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, more often taking out their own feet or their own people than anything else. In contrast, Johnson and Balz illustrate how the Obama campaign, led by David Axelrod and David Plouffe, showed a remarkable prescience and ability to be at the right place and the right time with a unified team. Sure they made mistakes and Obama and his team own up to them in their comments to Balz and Johnson but they didn't let miscalculations or gaffes derail their plan, established and adhered to starting two years before election day.

Many people want to put 2008 behind them and focus on what the Obama Administration is doing now (or, heaven forbid, anticipating the 2010 and 2012 elections). But for those who want to remind themselves of just how extraordinary the 2008 campaign was and gain some insight into how Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain battled it out for the presidency, "The Battle for America 2008" is a worthwhile read.

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