The Battle for America

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Spencer Platt / Getty

Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, right, speaks opposite Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama during the third presidential debate, October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, N.Y.

The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election
By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
415 pages; Viking

The Gist:
It was an endless campaign — close to two years of political and cultural combat among a sprawling cast of presidential hopefuls that, eventually, led to a history-making Commander in Chief. Journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson — current and former Washington Post reporters, respectively — capture the momentous contest in a polished account refreshingly free of last year's breathless soundbites, pundit insta-reaction or fixation on trifling gaffes (the maelstrom over President Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment warrants barely a mention). Instead, it provides an evenhanded and comprehensive account of the race, based on interviews with key players and enhanced by the perspective of time and distance.

Highlight Reel:
1. Inside Senator Hillary Clinton's fractious and fizzling campaign: "Far from being the overpowering political machine of legend, the Clinton campaign turned out to be a world filled with destructive internal conflicts, a place of tensions and enmities." We already knew Hillary Clinton ran a weak campaign organization — its top officials managed money poorly and apparently didn't grasp the intricacies of the primary caucus system until it was too late. But the book sheds new light on just how flawed and, in James Carville's term, "joyless" the team was. Balz and Johnson reveal that Clinton grew furious at her (soon-to-be-ousted) campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle after the Iowa caucuses when she seemed disturbingly comfortable with the prospect of her boss conceding the race to Obama. On a conference call the morning after her painful third-place finish in the state, the dispirited candidate's top advisers offered her ... nothing. Not a pep talk, not a plan for the future; silence. "I've enjoyed talking to myself the last 20 minutes," she said, and hung up.

2. The Palin gamble: A behind-the-scenes look at the selection of Sarah Palin to be John McCain's running mate, and the strife that choice eventually prompted.

McCain to his top veep vetter, Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse: "What's your bottom line?"
Culvahouse: "John, high risk, high reward."
McCain: "You shouldn't have told me that. I've been a risk-taker all my life."

Culvahouse was right — choosing the little known Alaska governor as his running mate represented a daring risk, but unfortunately for the GOP it backfired. The excitement generated by Palin's surprise pick, her unorthodox political pedigree and electrifying convention acceptance speech would dissipate as she increasingly appeared unprepared for the nation's No. 2 office. Top McCain strategist Steve Schmidt believed Palin's series of disastrous interviews with CBS' Katie Couric was "one of the worst performances ever" by a national political candidate (Balz and Johnson report that Palin put off preparing for the interview, oddly, to focus on completing a written questionnaire for a small Alaska newspaper, the Mat-su Valley Frontiersman). The Alaska governor touched off such turmoil and animosity within the campaign that, when it came to judging the varied allegations against her, the authors found that "determining the truth was impossible."

3. Obama: "I think the whole election was a novel." The book includes some interesting musings from the then President-elect, who spoke to the authors six weeks after his win. Despite the challenges facing a young, black, first-term Senator wishing to be President, Obama said the outcome didn't surprise him. An early indication that he might be electable nationwide, he said, was his strong Senate approval ratings even in Illinois' rural, white, culturally conservative regions. 
"If I'm in a big industrial state with 12% African-American population and people seem to not be concerned about my race and much more concerned with my performance, why would [that not hold true] across the country?"

The Lowdown:
The Battle for America was written by two traditional reporters with heaps of inside-the-beltway experience, and it shows. The narrative stays tightly focused on candidates and political issues almost to a fault — glossing over the broader cultural momentum that helped propel Obama to a decisive win. There is no mention of's viral "Yes We Can" music video that galvanized youth support, or of Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous "Hope" graphic, which lent the candidate street cred and fed the perception that he hovered above conventional politics. The authors mention Tina Fey's Saturday Night Live impression of Sarah Palin, but don't convey the damage it inflicted by so deftly portraying her as a perky airhead (many now believe Palin actually claimed she could "see Russia from [her] house"; that was Fey.) On the whole, however, The Battle for America paints an insightful portrait of one of the most dramatic and consequential elections of modern times.

The Verdict: Read.