Between 1960 and 1972, Theodore White was the unquestioned master of the campaign narrative. His Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, “The Making of the President, 1960— was a consummate insider account of his time embedded with the Nixon and Kennedy campaigns. He would go on to write similar accounts of the 1964, 1968 and 1972 presidential contests.
Today, no campaign would be reckless enough to allow a journalist that degree of access. As a result of today’s need to tightly control the message and limit outsider access, “The Audacity to Win,— the memoir of Obama for America campaign manager David Plouffe, is probably the best account of the Obama campaign that will appear.
But Plouffe is no White. He’s obviously very fond of Obama. His old business partner and right-hand man David Axelrod is now a top White House adviser. His old boss is now president of the United States, with an ambitious domestic agenda yet to be enacted. And there remains the distinct possibility that Plouffe might reprise his role as campaign manager for an Obama re-election effort.
Accordingly, Plouffe treads carefully. There’s a certain candor in his tone, but there are no bombshells. In fact, the only revelation in “The Audacity to Win— that shocked the scandalmongers at the popular gossip blog Gawker was the tidbit that Plouffe ordered Obama’s opposition researchers to leak word of rival John Edwards’ $400 haircut to Politico — all while bashing the newspaper’s hyperkinetic coverage to the public.
Plouffe’s book is structured chronologically, tracing the campaign from its formative days in late 2006 all the way through Obama’s landslide victory over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November 2008.
The heart of the story is the epic and bruising primary battle between Obama and now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In remarkable detail, Plouffe reveals the campaign’s internal deliberations over early strategy, as they squared off against the seemingly invincible Clinton political machine. He goes on to elaborate on each one of the scandals that dogged Obama (the “guns and religion— comment, Obama’s controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright and his tenuous association with Weather Underground member William Ayers) and the strategic reasons behind the campaign’s response.
Plouffe describes the campaign as a long shot to begin with, noting that each time the campaign took a big risk that flew in the face of conventional wisdom, they were rewarded handsomely — the foreign trip complete with a campaign rally on German soil, for example, or the unprecedented decision to opt out of the public financing system despite promises to the contrary.
The general election campaign against McCain and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin seems almost like an afterthought in “The Audacity to Win— — mostly because Obama was an odds-on favorite to win throughout most of the fall. Plouffe is usually congenial when discussing McCain, but he spits venom at the Palin sideshow. He also elaborates on the general strategy — recalling the campaign’s strategic decision to publicly paint McCain as erratic after his campaign’s suspension and his rush return to Capitol Hill to work on a financial bailout deal.
In some ways, “The Audacity to Win— also serves as a portrait of Obama’s evolving leadership style. In the early days of the campaign, Obama has confidence in himself and his mission but hesitates to cede control to aides and advisers. During his Senate campaign, Obama reportedly said, “I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I’ll hire to do it. It’s hard to give up control when that’s all I’ve known in my political life.—
One of the highlights of Plouffe’s narrative is that — intentionally or unintentionally — he brings the larger-than-life Obama down to earth by showing him at his most vulnerable. In remarkably vivid detail, Plouffe describes the ups and downs of the campaign. As a result, the tension of campaign life is almost palpable — and it’s sometimes reflected in Obama’s behavior. Plouffe describes the second doubts that Obama nursed just prior to his official announcement, or the fury that he unleashed on his campaign staff after a press release that was aggressively unfair to Clinton.
Still, political aides have sometimes been described as spear-catchers — their only job is to accept blame for mistakes and take the fall for their boss. Despite the strengths of Plouffe’s narrative, he’s still a presidential spear-catcher. None of the campaign’s major gaffes are ever traceable to Obama personally. None of its strategic blunders are Obama’s fault.
In a modern campaign environment, there are no Theodore Whites — no campaign would allow one, and what reporter would want the job? In a 24/7 news cycle driven by cable news pundits and caffeinated bloggers, a book published months later seems almost quaint. That’s too bad — because “The Audacity to Win— benefits from having an author who has had time to step back and reflect. At the same time, though, Plouffe’s hands are too tightly tied.