Matt Bai did not want to write his second book just about Barack Obama. What he wanted, he said recently, were “stationary targets” that would allow him to run at his own pace. He wanted a subject that wouldn’t involve the kind of reporting where his face would be “pressed up against the glass.”
So when John Harris, editor in chief of The Politico, approached him last fall about writing a book on the Obama administration to be team-reported by the Politico staff, Mr. Bai said no.
The idea of a Politico book was briefly but seriously entertained shortly after the election, Mr. Harris said, after his agent, Scott Moyers of the Wylie Agency, raised the possibility, and Random House, Mr. Harris’ publisher, indicated they were interested. At first, Mr. Harris was thinking about writing the book himself, but it quickly became clear that a full-time writer would be needed. Mr. Harris said he did not ask any of his own staffers to do the job, though Mike Allen, Politico’s chief political correspondent, was going to have a “major role” as a reporter and writer.
“A book is damn hard work—sure, we can have people who are great reporters and have the place wired, but then you have to sit down and write the damn thing!” Mr. Harris said. “I knew I couldn’t do it and also run a publication at the same time, and I knew that none of the other people here could do it with their current jobs.”
Plus, the book offered an opportunity to hire a marquee long-form writer. “It would have been to get someone we’d want in our pages in the long term, and use it as a way to recruit them,” Mr. Harris said.
Several people were approached, among them Mr. Bai, who is currently under contract to write four covers per year and a column every three weeks for the New York Times Magazine. But the book died on the vine shortly after Mr. Bai turned it down: not only was Politico publisher Robert Albritton against it—he thought it would be a distraction—but there was also a worry that having a book in the works would force Politico’s reporters to choose between running with scoops as soon as they were ready and keeping them in their back pocket.
When reached by phone on the night of Monday, May 18, Mr. Bai declined to comment on the Politico project, but told us about the book he decided to write instead.
Tentatively titled The Great Distraction and scheduled for publication in mid-2011, this will be Mr. Bai’s first book for Knopf, where he will be edited by Jonathan Segal. Mr. Bai said the book will be about the baby boomer generation, and how in the realm of politics they “simply failed to meet the challenges that were pressing in on them” during the past 25 years.
Mr. Bai’s first book was a critical diagnosis of the Democratic party called The Argument, and was published to excellent reviews and widespread attention in 2007 by the Penguin Press.
Taking a break from a Yankees game and a deadline for the Times Magazine on Monday night, the 40-year-old Mr. Bai explained his approach to the new book by citing a piece of wisdom he learned from Roger Rosenblatt in journalism school: “Look away from the ball.” Which is to say, Mr. Bai hopes that by explaining the mistakes made by the last generation, he will explain what is at stake for the current one.
“This is a book about how it went wrong,” Mr. Bai said of his new project. “There were a lot of things going on in American culture and technology during that generation’s formative years. A lot of things conspired to make our politics a lot less than it should have been, at a moment that demanded significant creativity.”
Though the book, like much of Mr. Bai’s magazine work, is motivated by an interest in generational change, the author said he sees himself as a reporter, not a historian.
“I’m not cut out to do the heavy historical lifting of poring through old yellowed documents in the Library of Congress,” he said. “I need to see the things that I write about, I need to see the people I write about. It’s a quirk. I can’t become obsessed with the non-living.”
He went on: “To me, this isn’t history—we’ve been spectators to and victims of an extraordinarily disappointing political era, and we should understand why. For me this is really about the future. You have to understand what went wrong so you can begin to untangle and reverse it.”
OK, so it’s not history, and not quite magazine journalism either. Maybe call it… reported narrative polemic?
“I’m not really a polemicist!” Mr. Bai said. “I’m never looking for a fight. I’m only looking to tell the story as I see it, so I tread carefully into that kind of ground. But I do think there’s an important story that has to be told. We are leaving a moment, and it’s a defined moment, and I think people haven’t quite gotten their heads around it yet. We’ve just turned the page on a pretty ignoble era of politics.”
Mr. Bai said he intends to tell his story through a handful of figures who fascinate him, such as two-time presidential candidate Gary Hart.
“He was really a visionary political thinker,” Mr. Bai said. “And I think what was lost there was symbolic of what was lost in the larger sense—when politics became less hospitable to flawed people, or when the nature of all politics started to drive away a lot of talented, creative people.”
Mr. Bai acknowledged that a book in which Gary Hart is one of the main characters is “not the intuitive book to do” at a moment as self-consciously historic as ours. “Certainly all the attention is on the President and Washington and what’s happening now,” Mr. Bai said. “It’s a little risky to ask people to take a step back in their minds.”
He said his agent, Sarah Chalfant of the Wylie Agency, might have preferred at one point that he write a book more narrowly focused on Mr. Obama, which a number of other top political journalists are doing.
One can’t blame Mr. Bai for eyeing that crowd and taking his ball to a different court. Among the heavyweights working on Obama books are the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who are both writing accounts of the new administration’s first year; New Yorker editor David Remnick, who is focusing on race; and The Washington Post’s David Maraniss, who is writing a comprehensive biography. All that’s on top of a biography of Obama’s father by Boston Globe reporter Sally Jacobs that’s coming from Public Affairs, the three big-ticket campaign tick-tocks coming from Crown, HarperCollins, and Viking, and several works-in-progress on the administration’s handling of the economic crisis.
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