Halfway through reading “Collision 2012” by Dan Balz, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw Peggy Noonan’s (intern’s) weekly string of tweets about her latest column, always, of course, including a helpful link to said column. She called it “the best presidential campaign chronicle in years.” I didn’t take her click-bait and instead waited to read her column until I finished the book. And you know what? She’s right. This book is excellent.
Unfortunately she totally misses the point in the rest of her column. She plugs the book, because, you know, #thistown, and then uses it as her weekly springboard to publish some digs at the President, his governing philosophy, and the decline of (her) America. She grabs a few anecdotes from the book that prop up her superior worldview and cranks out a column. It’s a shame, because Balz’s book deserves better.
What Balz did with this book is earn his place as the heir to Teddy White’s long-empty throne. And I don’t throw that statement around lightly. With “The Making of the President, 1960,” White introduced a genre of books that has inspired politicos for now multiple generations. His books about presidential campaigns in the sixties are important works of contemporary history. They are snapshots of our country at the time of the election. And they are fascinating looks at American electoral politics.
And so is “Collision 2012.”
Balz starts with three short chapters: “The President,” “The Challenger,” and “The People” and then jumps into the period of time that led up to the campaign, the nominating battles and the general election. It’s insightful, full of relevant interviews with candidates, campaign staff, and get this, voters.
Just like White did in “Making of the President, 1960,” Balz pauses at the beginning of the third section of the book, the turn to the general election, with a chapter called “The New America.” It’s an admiring nod to White, but avoids simple mimicry. Balz writes:
“Presidential elections are often retold from the inside out, as if all power and wisdom flow from the strategists plotting and arguing inside their secured headquarters. But the story is often better told from the outside in, as a way of highlighting how so much that happens in American politics is determined by larger forces that the campaign strategists can only change at the margins. This was certainly the case in 2012. For all the drama of any moment, for all the exaggerated attention given to one daily controversy or another, for all the praise heaped on the winners and the second-guessing of the losers, for all the elements that make political campaigns compelling, entertaining exasperating, and sometimes just plain weird, elections play out agains the reality of an ever-changing country that powerfully directs the action.”
White understood this and his books were not just representative of an election but of the electorate and their desires. It’s the central principle from which Balz writes about the campaign, and he deserves credit for that approach.
For me, the chapter on the Denver debate was the best example of how Balz balanced the day-to-day combat of the election with the bigger picture. It’s told with plenty of behind-the-scenes detail about preparation and strategy, but it is also told from the land of Twitter. He writes about a key exchange in the debate, and then follows with three or four tweets about said exchange. That’s how many of us will remember the debate, and importantly, how the reaction to the debate was cemented in the pundit world and ultimately with voters. Again, White’s influence is felt in this chapter. It was White who wrote the first or second draft of the legend of the Kennedy/Nixon debates, as TV the new medium in 1960. For 2012, the new medium was Twitter, and Balz deftly handles introducing us to the way it affected the campaigns.
In a few months, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann will release the sequel to “Game Change,” called “Double Down.” And I’m looking forward to it. It will be all the talk of the political world, and will inevitably placed in the pantheon of great campaign chronicles. Theodore White himself may be mentioned, as he was when “Game Change” first arrived on the scene. Yet I predict “Double Down” will be told almost entirely from the “inside out,” as Balz would say. Halperin and Heilemann are incredibly talented and connected, and they may even do a better job reflecting the day-to-day silliness that drives a campaign to election day. Their book, in fact, may be more fun to read. But my bet is that Balz’s book is the one that belongs on the shelf next to White. His is the chronicle that will be useful to those who study campaigns in 50 years.
After reviewing four books about the 2000 campaign, the historian and author Gary Wills wrote that “the campaign book deserved to die and it is doing its duty.” Ten years later, after “Game Change” was published, Jill Abramson quoted Wills at the top of her important New York Times essay about the genre. She was tough on “Game Change,” but acknowledged that it might be “what the moment called for.” She was complimentary of Balz’s 2008 book, “The Battle for America 2008” (written with the now deceased Haynes Johnson) and said it “more closely resembled the classics” but noted that Balz and Johnson “lacked the PR skills of the “Game Change” team and so got less attention and less sales.” She’s right: before reading “Collision 2012, I had forgotten entirely about their 2008 book. That’s a shame and this book deserves far more attention.
Abramson also wrote in her 2010 essay that “the great campaign books are about more than back-room drama and tactical maneuver. They are about the communion of voters with candidates.” By that simple standard, Balz’s “Collision 2012” clearly qualifies as one of the great campaign books.
Rest assured friends, the campaign book is very much alive.
Thanks for reading.