‘The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election’ by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson

The Battle

for America 2008

The Story of

an Extraordinary Election

Dan Balz and

Haynes Johnson

Viking: 432 pp., $29.95

For the record, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist for the 2008 Democratic primaries, Mark Penn, remarked in a March 2007 memo that “the right knows Obama is unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun.”

That citation can be found in Joshua Green’s excellent reporting in the Atlantic, available online. In “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election,” Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson acknowledge Green while quoting from the same memo, in which Penn also asserted that Obama’s “roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited” and that he “is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking.” Penn recommended that the Clinton campaign “own ‘American’ in our programs.”

Lapel flag pins, anyone? We know who won, the mixed-race graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, alum of the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Senate. Balz, a political reporter for the Washington Post, and Johnson, a former Post national reporter and columnist, recount what they call " the election of a lifetime.” No political contest in decades, they claim, matches this one “for the richness of its characters.” While readers of Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1960,” which pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon and inaugurated the television age, might take issue, such a characterization seems true enough.

“The Battle for America 2008" is a close read of the Democratic primaries, with more abbreviated coverage of the Republican primaries and the general election. In that sense, it is most fascinating as a primer on Democratic Party politics and the mechanics of tactical campaigning as well as for its profiling of the mix-and-match dynamic of campaign staffs, with individual lives often thrown atumble in a public passion play.

Even if George W. Bush had not poisoned the well for almost any Republican presidential candidate, the matchup between Clinton and Barack Obama would have been the stuff of high drama, and that’s on full display here. Clinton, often judged a polarizing figure, is rendered quite sympathetically, and many readers will come away convinced she got a bad rap, that her public persona is out of register with a personal warmth and sincerity described too often to be dismissed as artifice. That teary response in a diner the day before the New Hampshire primary was a genuine, not confected, moment.

Balz and Johnson’s material is rich and built upon extensive firsthand interviews. While any political junkie or close follower of the campaign will already be well-versed in the outline of their story, they fill it out with details that range from poignant to chilling. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, for example, was a longtime friend of Patti Solis Doyle and warned her not to take the job as Clinton’s campaign manager; she did, only to be fired on the day of the New Hampshire primary, although she lingered with the campaign a few additional weeks. Watching Clinton’s concession speech on television, Solis Doyle sobbed.

And here’s an eye-catching footnote: In the cursory vetting that John McCain’s campaign carried out in its search for a vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, was asked whether she was prepared to use nuclear weapons and whether she would authorize taking out Osama bin Laden even if it resulted in civilian casualties. Unstated by the authors but implied by the context: Yes, she was comfortable with her finger on the trigger.

The same questions were put to the half-dozen other finalists, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a favorite among the top echelon of McCain’s staff. Yet as Balz and Johnson report, Pawlenty wasn’t considered the potential game-changer Palin was thought to be. McCain used A.B. Culvahouse, a White House counsel under Ronald Reagan, to interview potential running mates. When McCain asked for the bottom line on Palin, Culvahouse replied, “John, high risk, high reward.”

The range of personalities and the grind of campaigning -- the missteps and outright failures and successes -- are well evoked by Balz and Johnson, who have an eye for plain-spoken truth. Referring to a debate in Philadelphia at which Obama performed poorly, Axelrod said, “He was frankly just sick of debating Hillary Clinton.” David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, may have been intense, but colleagues joked “that his emotional range ran from A to B.” Penn was “the most visible antagonist” at the top of Clinton’s campaign (he was eventually demoted) and argued for harder attacks.

But as Geoff Garin, another Clinton strategist, told Balz and Johnson, "[t]here was nothing in this election that was traditional or followed form.” Consider Rudolph Giuliani, of whom the authors write, "[He] was an even more implausible nominee -- a socially liberal New Yorker seeking to take over a party dominated by Southerners and evangelical Christians.”

“The Battle for America 2008" briefly revisits Joe the Plumber, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and, wistfully, Tim Russert. It recalls McCain’s sprint to Washington to try to solve the economic crisis, a move that caused his campaign manager, Rick Davis, to admit, “It was an unprofessional thing to have done.”

Discussing Iraq with his pal South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, McCain observed, “Lindsey, my boy, this one may get us.” We are reminded of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson’s listless entry into the race, which led Politico columnist Roger Simon to file a story titled “Thompson, Lazy as Charged.” Conservative organizer Richard Viguerie tells the authors, “Nobody is excited about this election.”

Outlandish as that may sound, Viguerie was alluding not only to one stripe of the electorate but also to the abandonment of Reaganism, partly accomplished under the Bush administration. Many people view the 2008 race in that context: the conservative repudiation of the New Deal and Great Society has had its run, a macro explanation that fits some of the specifics of this election.

Even Obama floated the idea, in an interview with Balz and Johnson weeks after the election. When asked about his victory, he said we may be seeing “a correction to the correction, right?”

Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.