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Not-Quite-Review of A Long Time Coming

- February 15, 2009

This is the book that Newsweek published after the campaign, based on a series of articles in the magazine. As in the past few presidential campaigns, its reporters got some sort of exclusive access to the candidates’ campaigns, but, in exchange, couldn’t publish anything until after the election. The book, like its 2004 equivalent, does a fine job laying out the campaign’s essential events. As with most campaign reporting, it’s focused on strategy and the candidates’ personalities. You won’t find comparisons of Obama’s and McCain’s health care plans.

Like most people who pay attention to politics, I know the general campaign narrative. So I read looking for the juicy tidbits that I missed or hadn’t heard. The book had some, although I was greedily hoping for more. Here are the ones that stood out to me:

* Barack Obama’s performance in the early debates was so bad that, during one debate, John Edwards “came up to him during a break and scolded him, ‘Barack, you’ve got to focus.'” (p.8)

* As Obama mused on his early shortcomings as a candidate, he narrated this thought process to his campaign team, which Newsweek captured on tape: “So when Brian Williams is asking me what’s a personal thing you’ve done [that’s green], I say, you know, ‘Well, I planted a bunch of trees.’ And he says, ‘I’m talking about personal.’ What I’m thinking in my head is, ‘Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.'” (p.10)

* The book states that McCain was “never comfortable playing the front runner” and “was ill suited to be the establishment’s man.” McCain is quoted as saying, “What the fuck would I want to lead this party for?” (p.34)

* Both the Obama and McCain campaigns were targets of “sophisticated foreign cyberespionage,” which was investigated by the FBI and Secret Service. Neither agency would comment for the book. The best the book can say about the culprits is this: “There was no suggestion that terrorists were involved; technical experts hired by the Obama campaign speculated that the hackers were Russian or Chinese.” (pp.112-13)

* “Inevitably there was some tension between Democratic regulars and the Obama insurgents on the road to Denver. Delegates and congressmen, normally showed with free tickets, were allotted relatively few in order to make room for grass-roots organizers.” (p.114)

* “The John Kerry campaign had set up elaborate liaison offices dedicated to ethnic groups, organized labor, groups for the disabled, for women, for gays and lesbians. Somewhat grudgingly, the Obama campaign agreed to have a single staffer devoted to each of these constituencies, but later decided the whole thing was a waste of manpower and dispersed the interest-group liaisons to go work in the field on get-out-the-vote operations.” (p.115)

* “It did not go unnoticed in Obamaland that Hillary, toward the end of the convention, reportedly assembled her closest advisers in a hotel room to discuss her prospects for 2012.” (p.118)

* “Obama’s plane was taking off from Denver airport around 9 am when Axelrod got confirmation that McCain had indeed picked Palin as his running mate. He went to the front cabin to tell Obama and his new running mate, Joe Biden. Biden asked, ‘Who’s Palin?'” (p.120)

* “McCain loved the whole Palin family. They seemed to offer some relief, if not a touch of anarchy, to the Straight Talk Express, which had become a bit joyless. Piper, the governor’s 7-year-old, thought nothing of crawling across Joe Lieberman’s lap to get to her mother. Lindsey Graham mischievously enjoyed getting the children hopped up on Mountain Dew, a beverage to which he was mildly addicted.” (p.126)

* After Obama got back from the White House meeting about the financial rescue plan, he told his aides “that Henry Paulson had gotten down on one knee to beg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to blow up the deal. ‘Henry, I didn’t know you were Catholic,’ she said. She told him to go beg the House Republicans.” (p.135)

* “At the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 2, McCain was delighted to see that Sarah Palin had irritated Biden. Watching the TV with some aides, McCain exclaimed, ‘He looks like an angry old senator!’ The staffers were awkwardly silent, unsure if McCain appreciated the irony of his statement…” (p.147)

* Why Palin brought up Ayers: “Actually, Palin was feeling hurt and angry over the tabloid treatment of her 17-year-old daughter Bristol, and decided — on her own — that Ayers should be fair game. McCain’s advisers were working on a strategy that would launch an Ayers attack the following week, but McCain had not signed off on it, and Salter was resisting.” (p.156)

* Newsweek reports on this vote-tracking effort by the Obama campaign, but don’t report whether it got off the ground: “The geeks at New Media, working with the field department, had created a program that would allow a ‘flusher’ — the term for a volunteer who goes out to round up nonvoters on Election Day — to know exactly who had, and had not, voted in real time. The New Media magicians dubbed it Project Houdini, because of the way names disappear off the list instantly once people are identified as they wait in line at their local polling station. ‘I have no idea how [Project Houdini] will work,’ Steve Schle, the campaigns’ Florida state director, told Newsweek a week before Election Day. ‘But if it does work, it will redefine get-out-the-vote…It’s an amazing, fascinating tool, and if it works, it will be the model that everyone uses going forward.” (p. 167)

* “The day of the third debate, Palin refused to go onstage with New Hampshire GOP Sen. John Sununu and Jeb Bradley, a former New Hampshire congressman running for a House seat, because their views on abortion didn’t fully align and because Bradley had earlier opposed drilling in Alaska. (He changed his position during the race.) The McCain campaign ordered her onstage at the next campaign stop, but she refused to acknowledge the two Republican candidates standing behind her.” (p. 180)

With my political science hat on, I also looked for examples where Newsweek described campaigns or particular campaign events as important, but where as yet we have no real evidence that they actually affected voter behavior or election outcomes in the manner described or implied:

* On the “Red Phone 3 am” ad: “But it was Penn who finally came up with an ad that worked, on the eve of the Ohio and Texas primaries in early March…” (p.65)

* “Running negative campaigns is as old as the republic (Jefferson slimed Adams), but in modern national campaigns, Republicans have been better at the game than Democrats.” (p.86)

* On McCain’s ad with images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. “Most pundits huffed at the ad as trivial and a cheap shot. But it dominated the news cycle for several days, something McCain had failed to do for months. Obama didn’t get much bounce from his [overseas] trip, despite the heavy, overwhelmingly admiring press coverage. The ad had helped stall Obama’s momentum and, with some voters, raise doubts about his depth of experience.” (p.95)

* “Palin, the polls showed, had succeeded in rallying the Republican base. But she, or the simmering anger around her, helped make Obama supporters out of countless independents.” (p.153)

I have not read Chuck Todd’s new book. If anyone has thoughts, please leave them in comments.