The Making of a President
by Richard Wolffe
Crown, 368 pp., $26
Richard Wolffe covered the 2008 presidential campaign for Newsweek, and he really likes President Obama. No--I mean, he really, really likes President Obama. How much? Here's how much: Evan Thomas, a Newsweek editor, recently appeared on cable TV and said, "In a way, Obama is standing above the country, above the world--he's sort of God." And Evan Thomas says that Wolffe's coverage of Obama was too positive. That's how much.
Wolffe reported on Obama's campaign from its frigid beginnings to its pyrotechnic end, and his accounts were so Barackerrific that he earned yips and snarls from all the media watchdogs, especially on the right. As evidence they cited lines he wrote in the Hallmark mode--"On the campaign trail, Obama doesn't seek sympathy; he evokes hope"--and catalogued his appearances as on-air bootblack for the foam-flecked MSNBC host Keith Olbermann.
Wolffe's stuff wasn't just rah-rah: His Newsweek stories set a tone. Week to week he laid out definitive versions of story lines that other reporters could hold onto like little life rafts in navigating the churning waters of a long campaign. He informed his colleagues that Obama was a centrist at heart; that the candidate was peeling away legions of disenchanted Republican voters; that Obama's left-wing friends weren't really left-wing--all the half-truths that soon became conventional wisdom, mostly because they made the otherwise disorienting confusion easily understandable for reporters and their editors.
Critics who saw Wolffe as a liberal foot soldier for Obama were missing the mark, in my opinion. Like most political reporters, Wolffe in his private opinions is almost certainly a standard-issue liberal Democrat, squish division. Professionally, he's better described as a free-floating propagandist, ready to do service in whatever cause his editors sign him up for. Sports broadcasters call a guy like Wolffe a "homer." He roots for the team he's covering, and will do so faithfully until he's given a clear signal to switch sides. When he was a White House correspondent earlier this decade, with President Bush aloft in the polls, Wolffe's stuff gave off the same warm glow it had when he gazed at Obama three years later.
One story Wolffe wrote to accompany Bush's second inauguration in 2005 carried the headline: "He's hands-on, detail-oriented, and hates 'yes' men. The George Bush you don't know has big dreams--and is racing the clock to realize them." The article added detail to this account of Bush's unbridled virility. "President Bush is by far the biggest agent of change in his own cabinet," Wolffe wrote.
Whether he's remaking his team or plotting his second-term policies, Bush's leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent, and covets his own downtime. In fact, Bush's aides and friends describe the mirror image of a restless man who masters details and reads avidly. . . .
And so on, each layer thicker than the last.
Eight months later Hurricane Katrina hit, Bush's ratings tanked, and new orders came down. Wolffe now filed his dispatches for stories that declared: "Bush's leadership style and the bureaucratic culture combined to produce a disaster within a disaster. . . . It is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty."
Another name for the homer is the courtier, and it's in the courtier spirit--ardent, assured, and completely reversible at the drop of a poll number--that Wolffe has written his new book, Renegade: The Making of a President, a soup-to-nuts account of Obama's campaign. The book is closely observed and handsomely written and, what's more, it makes a signal contribution to the literature of contemporary politics, for it presents the case that Washingtonians make to justify their swooning infatuation with their new president. If you want to know why Evan Thomas and his friends are warbling "Nearer My God To Thee," this is the book for you.
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.
It's too early to say whether things are turning out the way Obama and his friends hoped they would. Some predictions already seem a little off. Nesbitt once asked the potential candidate what the response of the Washington establishment--"incumbent politicians"--would be if he were elected.
"Obama savored the thought. 'Well, they'd be quaking in their boots.' "
From what I can tell, most of those incumbent politicians seem remarkably at peace. They seem very happy, in fact--if not quite as happy as Richard Wolffe, Evan Thomas, and other scribes of the court. Whether their Obama rapture lasts depends (as we've seen in Bush's case) on the polls and on perceptions of Obama's success. It could go either way.
Richard Wolffe won't be writing about it in any case, at least not regularly, at least not in Newsweek. Since the campaign he's left the magazine and joined a public relations firm. From hack to flack--in Washington it's never so long a leap.
Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.