Are the editors and agents who said it would be impossible to write or publish a worthwhile postgame recap of the 2008 election having second thoughts now that the race has turned out to be so much fun?
Michael Takiff, an oral historian preparing to go out with a proposal for precisely that kind of book, hopes they are.
His literary agent, young up-and-comer Jason Ashlock of the Marianne Strong Agency, describes Mr. Takiff’s book as a spiritual heir to the late Theodore White’s classic, The Making of the President, a novelistic ticktock that gave readers an inside look at the presidential race of 1960 and offered a level of detail that daily reporters didn’t have room for in their copy. Mr. Ashlock said last week that he hopes whichever publisher ends up taking on Mr. Takiff’s project would consider buying the rights to the four election books White wrote before he gave up the habit in 1976, and publish them as a series in conjunction with Mr. Takiff’s. Mr. Ashlock has even reached out to White’s son about possibly writing a foreword that would signal what he called “a passing of the torch.”
Still, Mr. Ashlock will face an uphill battle selling Mr. Takiff’s book, as conventional wisdom in the publishing industry throughout this campaign season has been that the 24-hour news cycle has rendered the mini-genre White pioneered obsolete—that the texture once available exclusively in full-length books has become so abundant online that even the most devoted political junkies will have had enough by the time the circus leaves town in November. As Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal put it earlier this year, “Who wants a book on the campaign when you get the story cheaper and in real time in magazines and on the Web?”
But are these not extraordinary times? Even the skeptics seem to agree that this election has been one of the most captivating and unpredictable in history—that if ever there was a race ripe for the White treatment, it’s this one.
And yet only a handful of our top political journalists will admit to working on such a thing. Among them are Washington Post reporter Dan Balz and Pulitzer Prize winner Haynes Johnson (formerly of The Post), who signed on with Viking more than a year ago, as well as Time’s Mark Halperin and New York’s John Heilemann, whom HarperCollins signed up in June after Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker’s campaign correspondent, canceled plans to write a book for them because David Remnick didn’t want him getting distracted from his work for the magazine.
The only other election books known to be in the works are the 200-page paperback* by Evan Thomas that Newsweek will put out with PublicAffairs—the magazine has issued such a book after almost every election since 1984—and Eric Boehlert’s The Bloggers on the Bus, which covers coverage of the campaign rather than the thing itself. Hedrick Hertzberg’s thinking of putting together a collection of his columns; Jonathan Alter from Newsweek is “saving string” for a book but won’t decide whether he’s actually going to write one until after the results come in.
Where’s everybody else?
Cal Morgan, editorial director at HarperPerennial and an executive editor at Harper, wishes someone would step up.
“I would kill to have a book like that,” Mr. Morgan said in an interview Monday. “But I haven’t seen the right person doing the right reporting. Maybe that reporting is invisible to the naked eye because people are doing so much, but … in the past 10 years or so, or in the past eight in any event, there has not been—outside of Woodward and a couple of others—there has not been a lot of intimate reporting that reporters like Teddy White used to get great stories out of.”
Even Mr. Morgan has doubts that such reporting would necessarily attract readers, and though he believes that a Woodward-style insider account of the election published shortly after its conclusion could be a best seller if the author “absolutely nailed it,” he suspects the media has changed too much for any old “here’s what happened” account to find a substantial audience.
“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.”
*According to PublicAffairs publicity director Whitney Peeling, the book is actually coming out in hardcover, and will be closer to 240 pages.