Monday, February 08, 2010

Book of the Week: Race of a Lifetime

This week, the Vole has been reading Race of a Lifetime, a splendid journalistic account of the tumultuous back story behind the 2008 American presidential election and the arguments between the Obama, Clinton and McCain camps.

Not to be confused with A Lifetime in a Race, the biography of Matthew Pinsent, which is more about rowing than rowing (I guess that is a joke, like Aspirin, that only works orally).

The authors, two old hands in Washington politics, spoke to dozens of inside sources about the fractious relationships within and between the camps as momentum shifts from one frontrunner to another and hopes ebb and flow.

As David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, says: "This would be a really exciting election if I wasn't part of it."

One thing that becomes clear is that, in the main, Obama was given a pretty gentle run by the media. It is also clear that the Clintons underestimated him.

No wonder: in 2003, Hillary Clinton was being lobbied hard to run for the presidency (she refused, in the main because her daughter said it would break her promise to serve a full term in the Senate) and at the same time was being generous, both with money and contacts, to a young would-be Illinois senator as he sought election. She must have found it hard to accept that within four years her protege, a queue-jumper, would be giving her a kicking.

Certainly, she found it hard to stomach that having helped to fund his initial run for office, Obama than refused to help her to clear her campaign debts after she withdrew from the race for the nomination. It was this, the authors suggest, that almost proved a fatal block to her accepting his offer to be Secretary of State. She rejected the offer at first, wanting to spend time erasing her debts instead, but was talked round.

If Clinton v Obama is the main fight, it is one of the characters on the undercard whom I find most fascinating and who may yet prove to have a role to play in politics. Sarah Palin was such a leftfield choice (or should that be far-rightfield) that few knew who she was or what her capabilities were.

She was a game-changer, for sure, but the bounce that the McCain campaign got from her being unveiled and her first speech were extremely short-lived.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Palin, who was dumped way out of her depth. An early briefing of the would-be VP realised the task that confronted the McCain advisors. "Palin couldn't explain why North Korea and South Korea were separate nations," the authors write.

"She didn't know what the Fed [the Federal Reserve] did. Asked who attacked America on 9/11, she suggested several times that it was Saddam Hussein. Asked to identify the enemy that her son would be fighting in Iraq, she drew a blank. Later, on the plane, Palin said to her team: 'I wish I'd paid more attention to this stuff'."

She frantically scribbled down facts on index cards, which piled up on her desk, but the information did not seep in and, as the disastrous Katie Couric interview revealed, she really was dimmer than a 20-watt bulb.

As she realised that she was drowning, the candidate became depressed. She stopped eating, she barely drank even water, she could not sleep. As one might expect, she clung to what she knew best - Alaskan politics - demanding that more money be spent on polling and adverts in her home state, even though it was a Republican banker. She was reportedly dismayed that she only had 70 per cent approval ratings in Alaska and regarded improving that to be as important as winning the rest of the country.

Of course, people can change and people can improve. Palin will be stronger for the experience of 2008. But it is worrying to read that she is now planning her bid for the White House in 2012. She may be loved on the right for her folksy straight-talking and her strict religious views on guns and abortion. But if she is really the best that the Republican Party can offer in two years' time, God help us all.

Still, at least she can see Russia from her house. That's got to count for something, right?

No comments: