Book: Race of a Lifetime
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Rs 599; pages 448
When the United States began choosing its 44th president in 2007, pundits said the elections were for the Democrats’ to lose and Hillary Clinton’s to win. The pundits proved to be wrong. The Republicans came within a nose of crossing the line by selecting an anti-candidate and Clinton was swept away by an Afro-American tsunami.
Barack Obama’s campaign wasn’t taken seriously at first. But over a year before voting day his advisors knew they were onto something when focus groups who watched footage of Clinton and Obama were strangely stirred by their man. One white woman said, “There’s something about that guy. That’s the guy I want.” Another one said of Clinton, “I do want a woman to be president of the United States. But not this one.”
Clinton comes across as a tragic but flawed character. Her campaign team was so loyal to her they failed to gel with each other. Her temper tantrums would stun even her staff. However, what proved fatal was a complete underestimation of Obama and his appeal. “This guy is a phony,” she told her team.
Obama entered the campaign after sensing a public desire for a sweeping, all-encompassing change in the polity. The meat of the book is the Democratic primary race, that unique American political process by which parties choose their candidates.
It was hardly a one-way ride for Obama. He frittered away the early momentum provided by a stunning Iowa caucus win before the pendulum swung decisively in his way.
McCain’s run, in contrast, was a miracle. Unlike the data-conscious Obama, the Republican preferred an “ultra-laissez faire” campaign with minimal planning and lots of uncalculated risk.
A little over a month from election day, McCain was neck and neck with Obama in the polls. But his dislike for briefing books eventually caught up with him. Just weeks before D-day, Lehman Brothers went belly-up and the US economy went into freefall. At a high-level meeting to discuss the crisis, Obama sounded presidential, McCain juvenile. Then President, George W. Bush, heard McCain and thought to himself: Unconstructive. Unclear. Ineffectual. The polls swung.