Thursday, November 1, 2018

Book Review: 'Why Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008' by Greg Mitchell

Review by Susan Gardner
Why Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008 
By Greg Mitchell 
Sinclair Books, New York 
$16.99, 222 pages
Usually, I'm not a big fan of compilations of previously published work, and contemporary political events are even more subject to an accelerated expiration date than other forms of columns re-purposed for a book. But in Greg Mitchell's case, with Why Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008, the format works; in fact, simply republishing the best of his observations from the campaign season--and he's proven himself over the years to be a particularly astute campaign watcher--is the ideal way to re-ride the unpredictable roller coaster that was Campaign Season 2008.

In Why Obama Won we're treated to precisely one year--November 2007 to November 2008--relived as if in real time, with columns and blog posts unfolding in the order of events. With the exception of an explanatory introduction, the amazing year is relived from the vantage point of the untouched and unremarked-upon original columns, from when Mitchell covers the five prominent political writers who predict Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee (and Barack Obama doesn't even qualify for one of them--not one of them--as the dark horse early in the game), to the analytical entries about what led to Obama's tremendous victory.
It is good to be reminded of what we lived through and, in our new president's campaign words, how he and the grassroots movement he inspired fit in to "the unlikely story that is America." Mitchell, editor of the esteemed trade publication Editor & Publisher (and Daily Kos diarist), is in a unique position as a veteran of campaign coverage, to cull the best and the worst of the events on the campaign trail and cobble them together in a way that creates a smooth narrative.
Along the way, there are many, many passages I came to think of as, "Oh, God! Remember that?" moments, from the brouhaha over Hillary purportedly not leaving a waitress a tip to the hype about "superdelegates," from David Shuster talking about how Chelsea Clinton had been "pimped out" to the hand-wringing over who John Edwards would ultimately endorse, from Rich Lowry and his Palin starbursts to Sinbad (Sinbad!) contradicting Hillary's account of the danger of her Bosnian trip. Seriously, in some ways, the book reads like an account of fleeting hallucinations remembered from delirium, which is somehow fitting, as we all were swept up in campaign fever. These "Oh, God! Remember that?" moments serve as reminders that what seems earth-shaking and deal-breaking one day winds up being trivial footnotes to history in the end.
There are also "I honestly don't remember that" moments. Did Bill Kristol really suggest Clarence Thomas to fill out John McCain's ticket at vice president? Really? Well, Mitchell, thank God, was keeping track, and by gum, he did ("He [McCain] could persuade the most impressive conservative in American public life, Clarence Thomas, to join the ticket."). I confess as a full-fledged, card-carrying political junkie, I want that fact and that quote at my fingertips for mockery ammunition for the rest of my life.
Nowhere is Mitchell's analysis more valuable than when he watches the watchers, i.e., keeps an eye on the media coverage and its meaning as the election moves through its paces. He notes how Americans are contradictory consumer of news--"Yet the more Americans complain about the media, old and new, the more they seem to tune in, or click through, for campaign coverage"--and he is astutely critical of the traditional media and its rote and predictable responses to every aspect of news. In "Pundits Blow Debate Analysis Again," he mocks how the talking heads on TV would tell us--the American people--who the American people would think won the debate, only to be contradicted moments later when the insta-polls came in.
In my favorite section, Mitchell takes Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell to the woodshed for her nauseating--and inaccurate--mea culpa in which she "confessed" to liberal media bias in favor of Obama throughout the campaign, proven (in her mind) by the fact that there were more references to Obama in her newspaper. Searingly, he observes:
Except for a week after the end of the GOP convention, before Palin-mania collapsed, Obama was ahead in the polls, eventually by a lot, and he always led in the fundraising (overwhelmingly), in the size of his crowds (ditto), and in putting more states in play. He couldn't help but lead in favorable coverage--if that coverage was thoroughly dominated by the horse race (which it was)... Does anyone doubt that if McCain had roared to the lead in October and stayed ahead until the end that the results of the studies would have been completely different? Yes, the press is biased--in favor of recognizing who is winning and stating that perhaps far too often.
It's not all woodshed and simple process moments. There is serious analysis packaged in these pieces, about the influence of new media and new technology, about the relationship between funding and the small donor revolution and the meaning of it for the future of political movements and elections. And always, there is Mitchell's wry, understated sense of humor, with its companionable undertone for his fellow followers and lovers of politics. For example, in mid-March, during the kerfuffle over the Samantha Powers' remark about Hillary being a monster, and Powers' subsequent resignation from the Obama campaign, Mitchell dryly observed: "At this rate, there will be no advisers left by June and Bob Shrum will be running both campaigns. At least then he would finally win one."
It's hard to imagine political observation status getting more delightful and informative than this.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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