The Frenzy for The Making of the President, 2008

“It’s a tricky thing,” Mr. Morgan said. “I think it’s a very noble and important part of our journalism that such books are written. But there’s a more challenging environment as far as publishing them now, because there’s such an information overload during the campaign that to promise a book that’s going to come out months afterwards and revolutionize your understanding of what happened might seem to promise too much of a good thing.”

 

HAYNES JOHNSON, who is writing the book with Dan Balz for Viking, said Monday that this is nonsense—that at 77 years old, having covered every campaign since Eisenhower ’56, he’s never been more riveted than he is covering this one, and that publishers who failed to get a correspondent under contract early on have missed out on the story of a lifetime. 

“Whatever publishers may have thought—that the era of campaign books was over—they didn’t realize what was going to happen this year,” Mr. Johnson said. “This is the mother of all election stories. It’s the War and Peace of politics.”

Incremental reporting of the sort that appears online comes and goes, he went on, but a book that tells the whole story from beginning to end can give meaning to all the little twists and turns that have made this election such a thrill to observe.

“It’s like 10 books in one,” as Mr. Johnson put it. “When it’s all over, obviously it’ll be about who wins or loses and how they won or lost, but more importantly, it’ll be about what this election is going to tell us about the American political system … and what it’s going to tell us about the American public.”

That may sound like so much hot air, but it actually gets at the heart of how the editors, agents and writers who insist on doing these books, despite all the arguments against it, believe the campaign book can be saved from extinction.

“None of us can really absorb it all,” said Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs. “I know we all think that everyone spends all day reading everybody else’s blog, but it isn’t true.”

It is precisely the episodic, dizzying nature of this election—the very thing detractors say has made the campaign book obsolete—that the faithful cite as a primary reason for why a great book-length retelling is so necessary. What we have now are a lot of subplots, they believe, and if a book is to succeed, it must do more than just go over them in order.

“I think that when people are filing to the Web, it’s often just very immediate,” said Alexis Gelber, who is working on the Newsweek book, “and I think what we’re able to do, particularly with strong reporting in the hands of a gifted writer like Evan Thomas, is provide this huge narrative sweep of what is undeniably an epic election.”

As Jim Silberman, who is editing Mr. Johnson and Mr. Balz for Viking, explained, “In the days of Teddy White, nobody had read a beginning-to-end story of a campaign before, as it was all covered in the newspapers and magazines. So just by setting down the facts, he created this genre, but I think now it’s much more complicated.”

A mere ticktock won’t cut it anymore, in other words, and if it is to survive, the election book will have to adjust to a new role.

Mr. Johnson personifies this role, as it is his job in the partnership with Mr. Balz—who is out on the trail covering the story on a daily basis for The Post—to stay home in D.C. and consider the big picture: “He’s the inside guy,” Mr. Johnson explained. “I’m the outside guy dealing with voters, focus groups, the issues, the stakes, the history.”

Doing this the old way, Mr. Johnson knows, will not work.

“We’re not trying to follow Teddy’s footsteps,” as he put it. “He was a friend and I admire him very much, but he was a romantic about politics. This is not a romantic time to look at the wonders of American politics. It’s a very disturbing time, and we’re trying to tell that story.” 

lneyfakh@observer.com

*According to PublicAffairs publicity director Whitney Peeling, the book is actually coming out in hardcover, and will be closer to 240 pages.