The Magazine

The Fawn Patrol

How embarrassing can the 'coverage' get?

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The case isn't particularly consistent or convincing. Problems begin with the snappy title. It's taken, Wolffe says, from the code name that the Secret Service bestowed on the candidate, a word that also accurately describes Obama's presence in American politics. Obama is a renegade, Wolffe writes, because he "repeatedly broke the rules." As examples Wolffe lists several tactics--forgoing public financing, spending barrels of money on field work, keeping his tone "mostly positive"--that winning candidates have used many times before. "He plotted to overturn the natural order of the Democratic party," Wolffe insists, notwithstanding the candidate's careful cultivation of labor unions, left-wing activists, shakers of the Washington money tree, multiple generations of Kennedys, and other stalwarts of the party's establishment.

So he's an odd sort of renegade, as even Wolffe is forced to admit. "He was a cautious and calculating rebel," he writes. "As an outsider," Wolffe goes on, "he owed the establishment little, but chose instead to play by its rules." Though he has a "restless spirit" it made him "yearn for stability." He is "a patient and disciplined renegade." He's a renegade, in other words, who doesn't look, behave, or think like a renegade. Tricky son of a bitch.

It's important to Wolffe and other courtiers to explain the object of their affection in the most extravagant terms they can find--in world-historical terms, if possible. And it is possible! At once shrewd and self-regarding, Obama is of course happy to oblige. Wolffe wants his readers to know that the candidate and his staff offered him "extraordinary access" and dozens of "exclusive" interviews. Exclusive here is a hack's term of art: The interviews are exclusive in the sense that Wolffe was the only reporter writing down whatever it was that Obama said in answer to his questions; they're non-exclusive in the sense that Obama told him nothing that he hadn't said a thousand times before.

The demands of the exclusive require Wolffe breathlessly to report bits of news that nobody in his right mind would want to hold his breath for. He offers many unsourced quotations like this one, attributed mysteriously to "one senior aide": "Experience in and of itself isn't bad. In fact, it's very useful in running a government." Or this one, about Obama: " 'He's prepared to make painful decisions when necessary,' said one senior aide." No kidding? Did the "senior aide" whisper when he said it? Were they in a darkened garage? My guess is he spoke only on condition of anonymity in hopes that the anonymity would make Wolffe think what he said was worth quoting. It worked.

In such moments Wolffe seems little more than a stenographer among Obama's circle of friends, hopping from lap to lap and filling his pad indiscriminately. But the technique has its uses and, in the end, gives the book its moments of value; sycophancy can be a close cousin to writerly sympathy, and Wolffe has no trouble viewing the world from Obama's point of view.

His rendering of the deliberations that led Obama to run for president--an account provided, of course, by Obama's aides and by Obama himself--is a wonderful account of dithering, puffery, and dorm-room deep thinking about "the meaning of an Obama presidency," well before there was an Obama presidency to think deeply about. Obama's friend Marty Nesbitt tells the would-be candidate that his election "might be the single most influential event since the Emancipation Proclamation."

"Yeah, it might be," Obama responds ("sipping his bottle of water").

With customary earnestness Wolffe quotes Obama's summary of his own thinking during these months, when the country trembled in expectation:

What makes a great president [Obama said], as opposed to a great person, is the juxtaposition of that president's personal characteristics and strengths with the needs of the American people and the country. And when you are a president who happens to come into office at that juxtaposition, there's an environment for you to be a great president.

Note that the deliberations turned not on the question of whether Obama was good enough to lead the country--his friends reached quick unanimity on this point--but whether the country was good enough to be led by Obama.

"I came to the conclusion," he told Wolffe, "that the times might be such that I would have to give it a shot." As it turns out, of course, the country passed the test that the candidate set before it. No wonder Mrs. Obama was so proud of us.