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Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
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BOOK REVIEW by OnTheIssues.org:
This book is about The Horse Race of 2008. That’s the pundits’ term for focusing on who is ahead and their strategy to stay ahead or catch up--which the press endlessly report at the expense of reporting on substantive issues. But this book goes beyond reporting the Horse Race--it reports on what each horse thought of each other horse, and how each horse felt, every step of the way. The authors are on a national book tour as we write this--but we warn potential readers that this book is only for political junkies.
They justify it hence: "More than any election in memory, 2008 was a battle in which the candidates were celebrities, larger-than-life characters who crashed together to create a story uncommonly emotional for politics; a drama rich and captivating and drenched in modern complexities surrounding race, gender, class, religion, and age." (pp. 8-9) Well, that sounds nice, but EVERY race is considered larger-than-life, especially to the authors writing books about it. So we take the authors' enthusiasm with a grain of salt.
We especially dislike that the authors often cover the horse race to the exclusion of covering issues. For example, "At the convention of the Jewish lobbying group AIPAC, Obama spoke first, then Clinton. When Hillary finished, she hurried backstage for a photo shoot--and ran smack into Obama." (p. 259) Whoops, nothing on the actual AIPAC speeches! That's the American-Israeli lobby -- but nothing on the Israeli lobby issues nor Israel policy at all! The authors assume that their readers know the candidates' stances on these issues -- the typical viewpoint of pundits so immersed in the horse race that they are unaware how normal voters think.
Even when the authors DO report issues, they’re incidental -- which is exactly the problem with the press that OnTheIssues.org was set up to combat. For example, "In June 2008, Obama’s lead pollster reported. The good news: Obama was leading McCain 49%-44% among likely voters. The unexpected news: the economy was now by far the most important issue, especially to undecideds.... The implications for Team Obama’s message were plain. Every effort they expended for the next four months should be devoted to shackling McCain to Bush on the economy." (p. 327) Umm, what was the state of the economy at the time, and what was Bush's policy? Sure, we knew in June 2008 what was going on, but after the fact, who remembers in which month the big collapses occurred? This is bad reporting at the time -- but truly unforgiveable in a retrospective book.
That's no isolated exception; it is the rule of this book. Even war is incidental to the horse race: "The next day, Russia invaded Georgia, markedly enhancing Biden’s prospect as the short-lister with the most bombs-and-bullets cred." (p. 339) That’s it -- no implications of the war or policy, just on “cred”. What matters with regards to an invasion by a former superpower against one of its former territories -- is how it affects Biden's prospects?! When I read stories like that in the newspaper, I vomit. And then I lament the downfall of the fourth estate, how the American press no longer fulfills its democratic function.
Ok, reporting on the Horse Race does occasionally impinge on real issues. On page 156, Hillary is reported as saying, “Voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of ten prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face. I think you need a president with more experience than that.” I suppose that's an issue, especially because Bush's only foreign experience prior to the presidency was with Mexico, and Palin's was famously only with Russia. I do consider Obama's residing abroad, even as a child, as REAL foreign experience, and formative to his foreign policy philosophy. Hillary evidently does not -- readers want to know what she DOES consider adequate foreign policy experience -- but the authors don't explore it any further than that.
The title of this book is intended to focus on the "game changing" events of the 2008 race. That's a nice framework, but there sure are a lot of "game changers": Palin's nomination was a game-change. The Florida primary was a game-change. So was the Iowa caucus. And the New Hampshire primary. And so on. With all those game-changers, what is the game? It's all change! Which means the term itself becomes meaningless.
Please join us in lamenting the downfall of the American press, as epitomized by this excerpt: "From the moment Palin stepped onstage in Ohio, McCain headquarters was in turmoil. The phone lines were jammed with calls from reporters trying to figure out who she was. The McCain press shop was just as clueless as the journalists. Frantic staffers were reduced to Googling Palin’s name or hitting the State of Alaska website, which was constantly crashing due to overload." (p.365) So let's summarize: Mainstream reporters felt that the way they should investigate Sarah Palin was by asking McCain headquarters about her? That's not "reporting"; that's "parroting the campaign." We at OnTheIssues.org remember that day very well -- because Googling Palin's name got OUR page, OnTheIssues.org/Sarah_Palin.htm, which set our one-day record of 850,000 viewers. We at the Internet press busily added to our Palin coverage while the mainstream press called McCain HQ and reported whatever we dug up. That day told us -- and this book echoes strongly -- that the American press is no longer capable of covering political issues in any meaningful way.
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, October 2010
Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
Page last edited: Sep 03, 2011