An election portrait, offering detail if not big picture

By Renée Loth
September 6, 2009

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When Barack Obama came to the Globe in December 2007 to seek the newspaper’s endorsement, he joked that competing against Hillary Clinton’s campaign was like trying to beat Microsoft with a few kids working out of a garage. Although Obama was underplaying the sophistication of his own team, the authors of the prodigiously-researched retrospective “The Battle for America 2008’’ show how the formidable Clinton campaign ultimately was no match for the nimble start-up from Chicago.

“With the Clintons,’’ write veteran journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, “nothing comes easy, without bureaucracy, or without excessive control.’’ The comment comes during the Iowa caucuses, but it could apply at almost any point in the early going for the Democratic nomination, as Clinton’s top-heavy campaign seems overwhelmed by the burdens of “inevitability.’’ Only when Obama wins the first crucial Iowa caucus and Clinton is threatened does she find her voice - for a while - and go on to win the New Hampshire primary.

The cliché has it that history is written by the winners, so it’s not surprising that “The Battle for America’’ is complimentary to Obama and his team. What is striking is how furiously the leaks and recriminations come from the campaigns of the losers - both Clinton’s and Republican John McCain’s. It’s juicy to get the dish on the vilified Clinton adviser Mark Penn, or see the despair of McCain staffers who try to brief Sarah Palin on the issues. But all of the insider chatter in “The Battle for America’’ leaves out one crucial voice: that of the American voter.

Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has written several insightful campaign books from the point of view of the electorate, during the Reagan years in “Sleepwalking through History,’’ and through the sobering aftereffects in “Divided We Fall.’’ He has honed an unerring sense of the American mood and how to capture it by going deep with a handful of representative voters.

Early on in “The Battle for America’’ there is a promise of this, when the authors introduce Fay Citerone, 53, whom they describe as “a perfect mirror of how Americans voted - and why.’’ And yet, by my count, Citerone reappears exactly twice - and only briefly - in 415 pages. Ordinary voters are hardly heard above the din of delegate counting, exit-polling, fund-raising, and finger-pointing.

It feels a bit churlish to complain about Beltway-itis in a book clearly aimed at political junkies. Johnson and Balz, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, secured exclusive interviews with principal players in the election, and a raft of internal memos and e-mails that reveal the thinking at the highest levels of the campaigns.

For example, most political post-mortems of 2008 have noted that Obama’s team understood and respected the obscure rules of the caucus system better than did Clinton’s. But here we learn that, as early as the summer of 2007, Obama had hired a team of no fewer than 75 lawyers to research the rules governing each state’s primary, with campaign manager David Plouffe expertly slicing and dicing potential delegate counts.

Still, the authors confine any editorial comment on whether such complexities actually serve the voters to a brief “interlude’’ chapter at the end of the book. In a way, this section is the most satisfying 11 pages in the book because it is the one that looks for larger meaning in the election.

Instead, most of the book’s energy goes into re-creating the campaign chronology, weaving in the contemporaneous musings of the men (it is still mostly men) behind the curtain. It’s all here: the intense lobbying on both sides of the Democratic contest for Ted Kennedy’s endorsement; Bill Clinton’s uneasy, sometimes disruptive role; the delicate rapprochement between McCain and President George W. Bush, who savaged McCain so badly in the 2000 primaries.

“The Battle for America’’ tracks the presidential horse race in exquisite detail, as delegates mount week by week through the long primary. There is drama in that, but hey, we know the way the story ends. Why not turn these immensely knowledgeable authors loose on the grand themes of 2008: race and gender; generational change; the harnessing of disruptive new technologies; the post-ideological narrative being written after the 20-year dominance of two political dynasties?

In the end, it is Obama who does the best job of capturing the American people - and the meaning of the election - in a few paragraphs of post-election interview. From the beginning of his quest for the presidency, he tells the authors, he believed that Americans were “frustrated with a government that was unresponsive; that their economic life was becoming more difficult despite the surface prosperity; that wages and incomes had flatlined and that in this new globalized world people were feeling more and more insecure . . . that people were weary of culture wars as a substitute for policy; . . . that people were embarrassed by the decline of America’s standing in the world . . . and that the American people were decent and good and would be open to a different tone to politics.’’

Eight months into his administration, Obama has slammed into the realities of Washington hardball. It’s poignant now to read his perceptive summary of America’s yearning, and a good reminder that campaign strategy, no matter how brilliant, really only gets you to the starting gate.

(PS: Obama got the Globe endorsement.)

Reneé Loth is a columnist and former editor of the Globe’s editorial page.

THE BATTLE FOR AMERICA 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election
By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Viking, 415 pp., $29.95

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