Political Intelligence

A review of Newsweek's campaign mini-book

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.

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.

Axelrod recalled that when the Rev. Wright crisis exploded, the “only one who was calm was Obama.” And Plouffe identifies Obama’s speech about race as the turning point in the campaign: “It was a moment of real leadership. I think when he gave that race speech in Philadelphia, people saw a president.”

The piece ends with this summation from Axelrod:

We believed in him, and we believed in the cause. And we believed in each other. And by the end of this thing, over two years, you forge relationships. And we’re like a family. The hardest thing about this is that it’s ended now. It’s like the end of the movie M*A*S*H…The war’s over. We’re all going home. And we want to go home. But, on the other hand, it’s sort of a bit of melancholy because we’ve come to love each other and believe in each other. And we know that this will never be the same.

The same thing is true about America.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.