Newsweek’s seventh behind-the-scenes look at a presidential campaign has lots of small scoops and several rather odd judgments. This 47,000-word mini-book can be a hard slog at times, but it contains enough inside information to keep any committed political junkie turning the pages.
At its heart is a portrait of the most remarkably disciplined, detached, and self-aware presidential candidate America has ever seen: “Obama recalled that he often joked with his team, ‘This Barack Obama sounds like a great guy. Now I’m not sure that I am Barack Obama, right?’ He added, pointedly, ‘It wasn’t entirely a joke.’”
This was a man so disciplined that, instead of gaining the usual “campaign 10 or 15 pounds,” he lost weight on the campaign trail–imagine how much that infuriated the reporters who were covering him. (The Newsweek piece notes that Obama was never particularly popular with the trail reporters–it was their editors who really fell in love with him.)
When Bill Clinton began to self-destruct in South Carolina (and his popularity plummeted seventeen points in a week), “There was no high-fiving or obvious schadenfreude. As Axelrod saw him, Obama didn’t enjoy a good hate. That would be a waste of time and emotion, and Obama was, if nothing else, highly disciplined.”
“If nothing else”?? That’s one of the odd throwaway lines from Evan Thomas, who wrote this account on the basis of reporting by Newsweek veterans Peter Goldman and Eleanor Randolph and three younger contributors: Nick Summers, Katie Connolly, and Daniel Stone. The truth is—if nothing else—Obama is the most intelligent and the most politically gifted presidential candidate we have seen since John Kennedy.
Another instance of Obama’s extraordinary self-control: On June 3rd, when Obama had finally won enough delegates to guarantee his nomination, an aide said, “You just locked up the nomination—how about a beer?” Obama started to say yes, then changed his mind. “We won’t hit the ground until 3 in the morning, and I’ve got AIPAC first thing—I better not.”
Intelligence and maturity were the real secret weapons of this campaign. Everyone from Obama on down always behaved like a grown-up. “In my judgment, he showed more insight and maturity than Bill Clinton at the age of 60 in terms of understanding himself,” said Gregory Craig, a very early Obama supporter, who served as one of Bill Clinton’s lawyers during his impeachment trial.
On the other hand, the vicious wars among Hillary Clinton’s aides constantly spilled out into the press, and when “McCain didn’t like the words he had been given to read, his inner Dennis the Menace would emerge, and he would sabotage his own speech.”
Obama was a brilliant delegator, and he only stepped in to take direct control of his campaign at the moment of its greatest crisis—when Jeremiah Wright’s ravings suddenly dominated every news cycle for a whole weekend. Newsweek’s description of this episode is one of the strongest passages in the piece:
There was no great internal debate within Obama’s staff, in part because no one really knew what to do. But Obama did…For several months, he had been thinking about giving a broader speech on the subject of race, and now the moment had arrived. Obama had his own sense of timing and purpose. He knew that Wright’s remarks could stir racial fears that could become a cancer on the campaign unless some steps were taken to cut it out, and that he was the only one skillful enough to attempt the operation…His half-hour address was a tour de force, the sort of speech that only Barack Obama could give… He had the ability to empathize with both sides— to summon the fear and resentment felt by blacks for years of oppression, but also to talk about how whites (including his grandmother) could fear young black men on the street, and how whites might resent racial preferences for blacks in jobs and schools. He ended with a moving scene, a story of reconciliation between an older black man and a young white woman. When he walked backstage at the Constitution museum, he found everyone in tears—his wife, his friends and his hardened campaign aides. Only Obama seemed cool and detached. The speech was ‘solid,’ he said, as his entourage, tough guys like Axelrod and former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, choked up.