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“A Long Time Coming”:
The Inspiring, Combative 2008 Campaign and the Historic Election of Barack Obama
By Evan Thomas/Newsweek staff
Public Affairs, 2009
|Keeping up with an election lasting nearly two years inevitably becomes tiresome, and the 2008 Presidential campaign was the longest in living memory. Most candidates declared themselves in early 2007, and there were nearly two dozen debates in the Democratic primary alone. John McCain won his party’s nomination by early February and Barack Obama was a lock a few months later. During the general election the financial sector collapsed, McCain put in poor showings at the debates, and many had come to see Sarah Palin for the joke that she was; the race was essentially over, but it would be a month before the votes were tallied.|
But the race had drama too. The previous eight years had been a complete disaster. Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton, who’d been anointed the presumptive nominee by anyone with a voice or functioning metacarpals. Obama may have secured his party’s nomination by April, but Clinton wanted it so badly that she hung on for months, beyond all hope of victory. McCain might have won in February (since most Republican states are winner-take-all), but he seemed dead in the water – flying coach and speaking to tiny audiences – before New Hampshire. And there was Obama himself, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. The first slaves arrived on America’s shores almost four hundred years ago, yet slavery lasted ninety years past the country’s founding, and legalized oppression nearly a hundred years after that. Barack Obama was the first black candidate with a real chance to win, and he would go on to become the first black President of a country with a history a racial strife that few can match. He won some states that fifty years ago wouldn’t have let him sit in the front of a bus or go to a decent school.
For reporters, time constraints and pecuniary imperatives often preclude all but the most rudimentary sifting mechanism, so anyone who follows the election in detail will have to sieve mountains of detritus to find the more exciting or meaningful bits of a story, which they’ll have to piece together themselves. A blogger pretty much writes as he or she thinks and a reporter or a columnist has deadlines to consider. A person writing a book has different responsibilities: to pick out what’s important, revealing or interesting, and then from these raw materials they have to build a coherent narrative.
“A Long Time Coming” by Evan Thomas and the staff of Newsweek is the first of an oncoming deluge of books about the 2008 election. The magazine sent out four (initially five) reporters to cover the candidates full-time from September of 2007; the rest of Newsweek’s political reporters chipped in as well; there was a dedicated researcher; Evan Thomas was responsible for shaping all of this information into a book; the project had an editor, another editor at the publishing house, and Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, co-wrote an introduction with Andrew Romano; and writers often show drafts to others – friends or someone who’s opinion they respect – before they send their writing out into the world. The point is that a lot of people presumably looked at this book, and furthermore that they looked at it with the intention of helping to make it better. If all of that happened, then one wonders how such a group of esteemed professionals – who have done excellent work in the past, and many of whom edit for a living – could produce such amateurish work, because this book is a mess.
“A Long Time Coming” is a failure in just about every meaningful way. It fails as a story. It fails, with a few exceptions, to edify. And at times it’s just annoying. Why, for instance, is the title in quotes? It’s as if no one in history has ever taken a sentence fragment from a character or subject and used it to name their book. And it’s not exactly clear who wrote the thing either. “Evan Thomas/Staff of Newsweek” is the official attribution. Inside it’s expanded to “Evan Thomas with exclusive and behind-the-scenes reporting by the staff of Newsweek.” Newsweek’s reporters were allowed to “embed” themselves with the campaigns, provided they didn’t publish anything until the election was over. Evan Thomas was responsible for tying the results of this “remarkable access” together, but what his mandate and responsibilities were is unclear. The slapdash quality of the end product is a constant reminder of this.
|Let’s say you’re writing a book. You’re in the middle of a chapter, the middle of your narrative, and you want to shift gears a bit, maybe from the Obama campaign to the McCain campaign, or to the Clinton campaign. You could separate the sections by two or three blank lines, perhaps a dash or a symbol apropos of your subject, maybe numbers. But if you do this you’ve committed yourself to a method of organization, and it has to be applied consistently.|
Evan Thomas doesn’t heed such constraints. Sometimes they break their narrative up properly. Here he illustrates Obama’s adjustments in speaking style by inserting a rest between two speeches, the first a particularly tone-deaf speech in front of a black audience:
“I already sold a lot of books! I don’t need to run for president to get on television or the radio…”
“I’ve been on Oprah!” That seemed to get the crowd back, but Obama knew he had almost lost them altogether.
Obama studied himself and learned, just in time. The annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Des Moines on Nov. 10 was a crucial beauty pageant before the real contest….
That makes sense, though it’s a typical example of Thomas’s idea of development: A then B and nothing in between. But paragraphs later he switches from the aftermath of that Des Moines speech to the Clinton campaign, which the reader is visiting for the first time. And this is how they do it:
…[David] Broder reported on Dec. 23 , a week and a half before the Iowa caucuses, “There is a jolt of pure electrical energy at those closing words. Tears stain some cheeks – and some people look a little thunderstruck.”
For someone who had reportedly coveted the White House for years, who had long plotted with her husband to take back the presidency and restore the Clinton imperium, Hillary Clinton was slow to actually declare for the nomination….
It might not seem like much, but when it happens a few dozen times (in a book that’s a mere 200 pages, large font amply spaced), it becomes tiresome. It becomes annoying. This is basic stuff, and it constantly reminds the reader that Newsweek threw this book together in less than three months.
But the bigger problem is that “A Long Time Coming” reads like a jumble of loosely connected magazine articles. The book can’t do justice to a single one of its subjects. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was in official operation for more than a year and a half, but it was plagued by poor and outmoded organization, and by dramatic infighting. Thomas/Newsweek address this only sporadically. Sometimes we get delicious vignettes like this, an apparently typical blowup in the Clinton offices:
Staffers were trying to work, sort of, and ignore the sounds coming from the office of communications director Howard Wolfson. “He’s going to ruin this f––ing campaign!” shouted Phil Singer, Wolfson’s deputy. No one was quite sure who “he” was, but most assumed it was [Mark] Penn, the chief strategist who was in more or less constant conflict with Hillary’s other top advisers. Wolfson said something indistinct in response, and Singer cut loose, “F–– you, Howard,” and stormed out of his office. Policy director Neera Tanden had the misfortune of standing in his path. “F–– you, too!” screamed Singer. “F–– you,” Tanden started. “And the whole f––ing cabal,” Singer, now standing on a chair, shouted loudly enough to be heard by the entire war room. “I’m done.”
But we’re never really sure why all of this is going on (or why, in a book presumably written for adults, the expletives are deleted). We’re told the campaign is poorly organized, poorly managed by the candidate, that each person disagrees with the next. Thomas/Newsweek make no use of other reporting, particularly the Atlantic’s in-depth work on the subject, to flesh all of this out, to make a story out of it. We only get impressions, like the impression that Clinton’s staff is a gaggle of egomaniacs.
Maybe Thomas/Newsweek thought using other, secondary, sources would dilute the novelty of the original reporting the Newsweek staff did specifically for this book (that, and the fact that “A Long Time Coming” is the first ’08 campaign book out of the gate, are about the only things it has going for it). But the result of that decision is a book that feels spare, as if you picked up a good book about the 2008 race, read a page, skipped two more, and did so until the end.
Context-less detail abounds. We find David Axelrod behind the curtain at Obama’s Denver acceptance speech with tears in his eyes. We’re told that Obama meant a lot to the campaign’s chief strategist. But why? Axlerod’s slowly evolving relationship with Obama, which began in the nineties and was examined in detail in David Mendell’s Obama, is mentioned only in passing. And by now you’re becoming rightfully pissed off because you paid over twenty dollars for a piece of lazy hack-work.
This sort of incoherence even makes its way into the chapter titles. There’s “The Great Debates,” a chapter purportedly describing debates which were, a few moments aside, not that great. We only get a cursory look at the debates themselves, and when we do Thomas makes it clear that he didn’t think they were great either, which leads the reader to think that the chapter was named by some air-headed PR flak who never bothered to read the thing. Most of the chapter is concerned with behind-the-scenes action: how the candidates prepare and then adjust after each one. All this is fine, and we would expect it from a book written with the collaboration of “embedded” reporters. But there’s virtually nothing about the debates themselves, the events that are the singular focus of all the people in the chapter. One doesn’t expect a complete transcript, but some highlights and a few quoted exchanges would be nice. And they’d be required if your goal were telling a coherent story, and not simply putting topical words in a binding that you could sell as a book just as the new President is coming into office.
Remember Sarah Palin? She’s a ghost-like presence in this book. The weeks between her introduction, the day after the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and her descent into a laughing-stock is covered in single page. In the interim, the Obama campaign was nudged out of the spotlight and McCain edged ahead in the polls, for the first and only time. It looked like McCain had a chance again. In writing about a race that was lopsided from the beginning, you’d think Thomas would take the opportunity to inject some of this drama, but working on a two-month deadline he seems all too aware that he’s writing for an audience that knows the end of the story. So Thomas summarizes until he gets to Newsweek’s next bit of original reporting, and the reader realizes he or she got suckered into buying a cheap souvenir.
|The painful truth is that it takes a long time to write a good book about a subject as manifold and important as the 2008 race for the Presidency. Facts have to be checked; a wealth of information has to be analyzed and then placed in its proper context; a story has to be shaped and told, and told well. It took Richard Ben Cramer five years of reporting and writing to produce What It Takes, his massive and magisterial account of the 1988 Presidential contest. And what did he have to work with? The prosaic George H.W. Bush, the underwhelming Michael Dukakis, the dour Bob Dole, and a race that was over months before it officially ended.|
The great race of 2008 was made up of far more interesting stuff: the cobbling together of the most powerful and technologically advanced political campaign ever, the end of two political dynasties, a supposed national hero’s fall from grace, a ridiculous caricature of a vice-Presidential candidate, and the first black President in the history of a country plagued by racial injustice. And all of this set against a truly epic background: two failing wars half-way across the world, the collapse of the America’s financial institutions, the hollowing out its manufacturing base, the failure of its health-care system, and a planet on the brink of environmental disaster.
Evan Thomas actually manages to make all this boring. They forget that they were supposed to be telling us a story, and what a story it could have been! It was a mistake to give so many people say over the final product, to ignore the mountains of secondary material available, and to bring this book out so soon after the events it describes. Near the end of “A Long Time Coming”, the author (or authors, who knows) give us a characteristically short paragraph on Obama’s victory speech:
In a sea of Americans in Grant Park in Chicago at midnight, Obama said, “It has been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” Yes, it has.
After two hundred pages of boredom and marginal coherence, those last three words strike the reader as an unearned attempt to dramatize a story the writers didn’t care enough to write a good book about. Someday, someone will write that book, and Evan Thomas/Newsweek will have earned far more than they deserve if they end up in its bibliography.
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.