It is less than a week until the 2012 Iowa Caucus. About four years ago, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead a group of Xavier students to Des Moines to volunteer for a weekend with the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates competing for the 2008 nominations. The students picked their preferred candidates, from Ron Paul to Joe Biden, and canvassed, phone-banked, and stood on street corners supporting their candidates. Nearly all of them got to see the Democrats debate in person. One student had breakfast with Chris Dodd and another met Bill Richardson. Oh, and about fifteen of them met then-Senator Barack Obama at two in the morning at the Hampton across from the airport. Let’s cut to the chase. There’s magic in Iowa, especially during the Caucus.
A fantastic memory, yes, but what is this doing on a book blog? Well, in short, the inspiration for the class I taught (along with two fantastic Xavier professors) was the legendary campaign book, “The Making of the President.” (My favorite genre, as the regular readers know by now.) We used several of the books in the class as a way of understanding the grueling marathon that is modern presidential politics.
Usually, one has to wait for a year to read the “definitive” behind-the-scenes book of how a president was elected or re-elected. White published his 1960 book in 1961. More recently, campaign books were released within weeks of the election, in time for the holidays. Newsweeklies would publish, in the magazine, a long-form piece that eventually became a book. Said book became the first draft of the history of the campaign. Both styles are useful—one benefits from a lengthier reflection following the election, and the latter places the election simply in the context of who won.
This year, things are moving even faster. POLITICO published “The Right Fights Back,” volume one of their 2012 campaign series, in November, more than a month before the first voter shows up to caucus in Iowa.
And it’s pretty good. It’s written with verve by Mike Allen and Evan Thomas. I don’t know Thomas’ style as well, but I read nearly everything Allen writes because it is informed and insightful reporting. (Want to know more about Allen? Subscribe to Playbook or read this NY Times Magazine profile.)
The book hits the definite high points of the race thus far, which is remarkable seeing as how not a single vote has been cast. It defines the candidates appropriately and, I think, gets right how they will be perceived long after 2012. It focuses more on Romney, perhaps because the authors believe he’s going to be the nominee, even though, again, NO ONE HAS VOTED YET.
It’s full of nuggets usually only available after a campaign has concluded, and I’m sure certain campaign aides were popping Tylenols after one or two of the anecdotes showed up in print. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and captures the feel of a national presidential campaign, at least what I know of one and having studied others. It’s a credible book that adds value to the reporting of the 2012 campaign.
But this book, for me, and I suspect for the authors as well, doesn’t belong on the shelf next to White or Cramer. (And since it was only an e-book, I guess it won’t be on a shelf anyway.) White and Cramer (and others like Witcover, Germond, and even Matalin and Carville) had the benefit of knowing the final outcome and had time to reflect; the newsweekly projects knew the final outcome but had minimal distance from the race. This book knows neither the outcome nor how the election settles in the American consciousness. My point is this: right now, the campaigns, candidates, staff, and even reporters, are in “the bubble.” The bubble bursts, for a moment, when people vote and a contest is decided. Because that hasn’t yet happened, the book is written entirely within the bubble.
As an example, let’s say Rick Santorum pulls off an upset in Iowa. Unlikely, but plausible. He’s mentioned almost nowhere in this e-book, and if indeed he were to win several contests, he’d be at least as important as John Edwards was in 2008, right? And Edwards was a big player in books like “Game Change,” which was billed as an heir to the White style of campaign book. In “The Rise of the Right,” the most recent Gingrich surge isn’t even mentioned, though it turns out it will have been a fairly important factor in the contest.
I don’t want to offend Allen or Thomas here because I loved reading this book. And frankly, their insights are so damn good that they probably can write “out of the bubble” even if they are still technically “in the bubble.” Romney gets most of the ink (bytes) in part one of the POLITICO book because, well, Romney is going to be the nominee. So I think they get it right, but still.
(This, by the way, seems to be the overall complaint about POLITICO. Some gripe that in the rush to be first, POLITICO misses the big picture. By and large, I think that’s crap. It’s a meme that exists because, well, reporters can be snarky. Overall, I think POLITICO is useful and informative and more often than not, full of perspective that helps people understand more—and, unfortunately, like less—American politics. (Excused from this aside is something called “POLITICO Click,” which was just plain stupid.))
I’m on a tangent here, so let me bring this home. For $2.99, I think it is worth reading this book. Download it and learn from it, especially if you like politics or journalism. I quibble with the breaking point for volume one; I think a more natural break would have been when the nominee had been decided or at least more certain. But POLITICO is nothing if not ambitious. Publishing a book about the campaign 13 months before the actual election takes ambitious to a new level. And frankly, if you get news from Twitter, you have no cause to complain about this format. Read it and enjoy it.
Permit me one final announcement about something I’m very excited about: Next year, the Mercantile Library will be hosting a summer reading series featuring some of the best of the post-election campaign books, including “Making of the President,” “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail,” and even, for the most dedicated readers, the 1000+ page “What it Takes.” I’m just plain stoked to be hosting this discussion group and am looking forward to reveling in my favorite genre of books with interested readers. If you are interested in attending, I encourage you to first become a Mercantile Library member. You won’t regret it.
Thanks for reading.