But then comes another one of Thomas’s odd judgements:
Nonetheless, a close reading of the speech suggests more than a hint of personal grandiosity. Obama was giving the voters a choice: they could stay ‘stuck’ in a ‘racial stalemate.’ Or they could get beyond it—by, well, voting for him. ‘We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election … We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will flock to John McCain … We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And then nothing will change.’
That passage had nothing to do with personal grandiosity: it was actually just pure political genius.
As Hendrik Hertzberg explains in this week’s New Yorker, “what made that speech special, what enabled it to save his candidacy, was its analytic power. It was not defensive. It did not overcompensate. In its combination of objectivity and empathy, it persuaded Americans of all colors that he understood them. In return, they have voted to make him their President.”
Although Thomas isn’t particularly good at conveying the historic sweep of Obama’s achievement, he does include plenty of fascinating details about the nuts and bolts that distinguished this campaign from preceding Democratic efforts:
- The Obama operation doubled the turnout at the Iowa caucuses, raised twice as much money as any other campaign in history, and organized volunteers by the millions. (In Florida alone: sixty-five offices, paid staff of 350, active e-mail list of 650,000, 25,000 volunteers on any weekend day.)
- It had volunteers knock on every door of every likely voter in Philadelphia, three times—on Saturday, Monday, and Election Day.
- In the battleground state of Ohio, instead of volunteers assembling at 200 parking lots at union halls, it had 1,400 neighborhood teams that the campaign had spent six months recruiting and training and managing.
- The Obama ‘08 iPhone application was truly remarkable: “Tap the top button, ‘call friends,’ and the software would take a peek at your phonebook and rearrange it in the order that the campaign was targeting states, so that friends who had, say, Colorado or Virginia area codes would appear at the top. With another tap, the Obama supporter could report back essential data for a voter canvass (‘left message,’ ‘not interested,’ ‘already voted,’ etc.). It all went into a giant database for Election Day.”
Even campaign tactics that looked to the public like elaborate publicity stunts turned out to be deadly serious strategies: When the campaign announced that Obama would announce his vice presidential selection via text message, “the point was to collect voters’ cell-phone numbers for later contact during voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Thanks to the promotion, the campaign’s list of cell-phone numbers increased several-fold to more than 1 million.”
Joe Trippi, the political genius behind the Dean Internet juggernaut, often said that if the Dean campaign was like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, then Obama’s was the Apollo program. Asked about this analogy, Joe Rospars, the director of New Media for Obama, replied, “Not really—if you consider that Kitty Hawk was a successful flight, as compared to something that blew up on the fucking launchpad.”
Overall, Newsweek’s effort is an adequate first draft of history. But authors who have a little more time to reflect on these events than Thomas will surely produce much richer versions.
And if you don’t have time to digest 47,000 words, check out Steve Kroft’s remarkable sit down with Obama braintrusters David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, and Anita Dunn.
Recorded immediately after Obama claimed victory in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters at Grant Park in Chicago, and broadcast last night on 60 Minutes, the interview contains a wealth of insights.
After Kroft observes that “so many people..said ‘You’re not going to be able to elect a black man president of the United States..that had to be part of your equation in planning this campaign,” campaign manager David Plouffe replies:
No, honestly, you had to take a leap of faith in the beginning that the people would get by race. And I think the number of meetings we had about race was zero. Zero. We had to believe in the beginning that he would be a strong enough candidate that people of every background and race would be for him. The only time we got involved in a discussion of race was when people asked us about it. It was a fascination of the news media.