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Stories of Senators, Spin and Scandal

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This cliché is particularly resonant in Royce Flippin’s latest collection of political journalistic treasures, “Best American Political Writing 2008.”

The collection — for political junkies, a delicious offering of political narrative and analysis — is broken into four categories: the twilight of Bush’s presidency and what went wrong; war and all that it entails; the appeal of certain candidates and the trials of the contemporary voting system; and of course, the race for the White House.

The stories in this last section, titled “The Race,” were written before Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) emerged as the clear Democratic candidate, but some of the themes continue to ring true as the long election draws to a close.

One such piece is a December 2007 article Andrew Sullivan wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, “Goodbye To All That: Why Obama Matters.” Sullivan writes of deep partisan divides, noting that “only Obama and possibly McCain have the potential to bridge this widening partisan gulf.”

Sullivan focuses on the ideological split between the pre- and post-Vietnam generations, and the splits within those two groups. He writes about the appeal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Obama in this context, noting that Obama represents the opportunity to move past the Vietnam mentality for those who long to look beyond it. Given the narrative of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign of the candidate as a tough war hero, a similar conversation might be had about the two men who ultimately won their parties’ nominations.

This is the seventh year that Flippin has been involved in selecting pieces and editing the collection. He said he looks for writing that has the potential to have a long-term effect.

“I’m looking for pieces you can hold up [in] a year, five years, that keep some weight and some heft down the road,” Flippin said.

Engaging as the looks at the race and the candidates are, readers seeking respite from the endless news cycle about Obama and McCain might turn to stories about two notorious governors: California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, the larger-than-life bodybuilder-turned-movie-star-turned-politician, and Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of New York.

In his story, “Arnold Schwarzenegger is President of 12 Percent of Us,” from the March 2008 issue of “Esquire,” Tom Junod illustrates how the California governor uses his giant personality to run the state and to get the government to bend to his “Teutonic will.” Junod’s profile is also humanizing, describing Schwarzenegger as unflaggingly optimistic and calling his “an amazing American story in general, and an amazing immigrant story in particular.”

Spitzer’s story, of course, is a more sober one. Given the call-girl scandal that would break only two months later, bringing down Spitzer and his once-promising career, it is almost painful to read the conclusion of David Margolick’s Vanity Fair profile from January.

After chronicling the failures and partisan scandals that plagued Spitzer’s first year in office, Margolick writes: “Talented and energetic, passionate and independent, scintillating and original, Spitzer may well be Albany’s best hope for a long, long time to come. Fifty years or more might pass before the planets align so spectacularly for someone again. And along with everything else he is, Spitzer remains a role model and trailblazer for all those other bests and brightests who need to be coaxed into public service, and into slumming it up” in Albany.

What Flippin says is perhaps the most important article in the book is also the most chilling. Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article, “The Black Sites: A Rare Look Inside the C.I.A.’s Secret Interrogation Program” takes an in-depth look at the treatment of terror suspect detainees, raising questions about the effectiveness of techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation, as well as the authority of some of those conducting the treatment.

Looking ahead, Flippin is already on the lookout for great stories to be included in next year’s edition. He’s still waiting to see a standout piece on McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“No one had heard of her when this book was published, and now she’s like topic No, 1,” he said. “I want something really great on Sarah Palin. I find her fascinating.”

While stories about the race might seem most relevant as Election Day arrives, other elements of the collection, such as a look at Clinton’s effect on feminist principles, will give the country something to ponder after a new president has been elected and there is time to reflect on the lengthy and turbulent campaign.

“I think a lot of these pieces will have illuminating value,” Flippin said of the book’s long-term appeal. “I think we’ll be able to pick this up next April and still find it interesting.”

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