John Rentoul was cured of his love of fiction by reading English Literature at Cambridge, having switched from History. His first job after that was on an oil rig in the North Sea, which involved a fortnightly commute by light plane from Aberdeen and helicopter from Bergen, Norway. His first job in journalism was at Accountancy Age and he was at The New Statesman from 1983 until 1988, latterly as John Lloyd's deputy. In 1987 he wrote a book called The Rich Get Richer: The Growth of Inequality in the 1980s, and he was recruited by David Aaronovitch to work on BBC1's On The Record from 1988 to 1995. Making a film about the future of the Labour Party after the 1992 defeat, he interviewed Tony Blair and told colleagues he would write a book about him because he was going to be leader one day. Tony Blair was published in 1995, and Tony Blair: Prime Minister in 2001. Meanwhile John moved to The Independent as Lobby reporter and he was chief leader writer for that paper from 1997 to 2004. He is now chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday. Since 2008 he has also been visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, teaching a course on 'The Blair Government'. Here John discusses two recent books on American electioneering.
John Rentoul on The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I like books about politics. Especially American politics. Especially American election campaigns. So the two best books I have read recently are David Plouffe's memoir of the Obama campaign, The Audacity to Win, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of the rise and rule of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. They pretty much book-end The History of American Electioneering As We Know It.
Plouffe's is at one end of the bookcase not just because the 2008 election is the most recent, but because the Obama campaign was a great leap forward in electoral technique, and because, more than any previous campaign, it was a commentary on all that had gone before. Not only that, it was a commentary on itself. Every so often Barack Obama would do the equivalent of turning to the camera to say: 'Gosh, look at me, I'm looking at the camera; and I'm running for President.' The campaign memoir is part of the campaign, the most self-conscious vote-gathering exercise so far.
Plouffe's book is not the work of a historian such as Goodwin. Nor that of a journalist with a cynical eye such as Joe McGinniss (The Selling of the President 1968). Nor that of a journalist with a novelist's eye such as Joe Klein (Primary Colors). Nor is it the partial memoir of one of the mechanics - such as Peggy Noonan (What I Saw at the Revolution), Mary Matalin and James Carville (All's Fair), or George Stephanopoulos (All Too Human), although it has the same quality of observing what they call in America 'the principal' from the outside and never being completely sure what is going on in his mind. But, finally, it is not the stilted and self-serving memoir of the principal himself. Obama has already written two prequels to Plouffe's book, and they are far from stilted. Indeed, their very fluency is part of this story. But Obama couldn't write the next bit, because he had a country to run, and Plouffe was the best proxy. He was the calm but beating heart of the Obama campaign. He probably knew more about how that election was won than Obama himself. He, the candidate and David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist and media adviser, were the triumvirate that ran it. Almost all political books promise to give the reader 'the inside story': this really is it.
It is a plainly-written book, which I mean as a compliment. The cliché count is high and there are many American football metaphors, which is fine by me as the NFL is another part of my window-box-sized cultural hinterland. But the power of the story is great enough to give it drama, emotion and a sense of high history. At one level, it is one of the oldest stories in politics: the untested candidate with a hint of something special up against the favourite who seems to have it in the bag and turns out to have read it wrongly. It is Abraham Lincoln against William Seward; Bill Clinton against George Bush Sr; it is David Cameron against David Davis; and it is Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton.
I remember Obama back in 2006, when the betting markets gave him less than a 20 per cent chance of winning the Democratic nomination. That is where Plouffe's story starts, with Obama's decision to run, a decision that took three months to become definite. His first problem was that he had, nine months earlier, said that he wouldn't run. He, Axelrod and Plouffe spent a while, in one of the first of the conference calls that would be their main form of dialogue for the next two years, discussing how to finesse Obama's earlier statement. They ran through 'some of the standard nonanswers' - 'my focus now is on helping Democrats win back the Congress' and so on. Then the candidate cut through the knot. 'Why don't I just tell the truth?' he said. 'Say I had no intention of even thinking about running when I was on the show in January but things have changed.' Of course, 'telling the truth' is a self-serving line, but it is also often the best spin.
That was how the campaign was: true to itself; and simple. It staked everything on Iowa, the first primary. If Obama won there, his internet-based grassroots campaign could raise enough money to be competitive with Clinton. Then it had to fight in every state to win enough delegates under the Democrats' system of proportional representation: from then on, the focus was on winning delegates rather than winning the share of the vote in the big states. From the inside, it was simple. Watching from the outside, we had no idea. Well, I had no idea. I thought it was all over for Obama when Clinton beat him in California on 5 February 2008. In fact, Obama had just (all but) secured the nomination - and therefore, in retrospect, the presidency. Clinton's share of the vote in California, the most populous state in the Union, looked impressive, but Obama piled up a huge lead in delegates in all the other states that voted that day. Mind you, I was in good company: Clinton's campaign seems to have failed to grasp the significance of the delegate count, and most of the American media certainly did. Plouffe tells how he eventually persuaded the big-foot correspondents to see what was happening.
It is the contrast between the intricate machinery of politics and the idealism of making history that links all the books on the shelf. It is that which makes Team of Rivals such a delight at the other end of the bookcase. The machinery was different in the 19th century; above all, the cultural machinery was different. What is so striking about Lincoln, Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates - the contenders for the Republican nomination in 1860, and Lincoln was at the start the least likely of the four - is how strenuously they had to pretend not to want high office. None of them attended the convention that chose the candidate. It was considered improper to campaign in person. Indeed, it was only in the 1860 general election that Lincoln's main opponent, the Democrat Stephen Douglas, became the first candidate to make public speeches during a campaign. It was seen as a sign of desperation, and Lincoln won easily. The rest we think we know, although Goodwin's book is an excellent primer for entry-level historical pedantry: that the Civil War did not start as a fight to end slavery.
What Plouffe and Goodwin both do well is show how a leader uses words to evoke large ideals, and how a leader's character comes through not just the words but through his understanding of the retail end of mass democracy. Plouffe ends his book by telling how, 'ever the staff guy', he was watching President-Elect Obama as he waited to speak at a concert on the Saturday before his inauguration. It took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Obama was gazing 'intently' at the statue of Abraham Lincoln. He asked Obama about it afterwards. 'Very observant, Plouffe,' he said. 'It helped me gather myself. For all of our challenges, we've faced greater. Lincoln had to save the Union... So I also asked ol' Abe for wisdom and judgement and patience. We'll need it.'
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]