Breaking News or Political Smut? It’s Both!

Conspiracy theories, misinformation and some actual journalism commingle in election season's nonfiction releases.

the real romney Breaking News or Political Smut? Its Both! Should Barack Obama win re-election, the most significant moment of 2012 will not have come from the president but from an ex-president. On a sticky Wednesday night in Charlotte this past summer, Bill Clinton took the DNC stage and did something Mr. Obama hasn’t been able to do: he made sense of the president’s policies and showed the other side to be full of, well, malarkey. People cried on the convention floor during Bubba’s appearance, just like many had during Mr. Obama’s speech in Denver four years ago. But I didn’t see any tears during the president’s acceptance speech this time around. Even Nate Silver couldn’t have predicted how much would change between 2008 and today.

Cue late October. The man who rose to the White House on his oratorical skills is tied with a technocrat just about everyone deemed a robot. Mr. Obama’s failure to communicate in 2012 is just one example of why this is one of the most interesting elections for political geeks in decades. It lacks the visual and historic beauty of 2008, the character assassination and Iraq war drama of 2004. It hasn’t been sexy; it’s been all about politics.

And it’s a dead heat. Back in the summer of 2009, the Times Magazine ran a cover story on Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s most influential aide. Detailing inner-cabinet drama, the piece pissed off the White House and a new policy was put in place, further restricting aides from talking to the media in what was already a Bush-esque press lockdown. Along with the media’s glossing over of Romney’s competence (or lack thereof), this is one reason why the race is tied: Team Obama’s shunning of the press has severely hurt his image.

Since those restrictions were put in place, newspapers and magazines have been light on the in-depth, investigative White House reporting we’ve come to expect from an election year. Much of what is known about the inner workings of the Obama administration comes from books—not Twitter, cable news or Politico but good old hardcover political porn. This, ironically, likely makes Washington the last industry to use books as a major source of breaking news, even though the capital generates more news than any city on Earth. Every election year sees a tsunami of political titles. The question of why people like these books is clear: they are essential reading. This is the only format that gets us inside the White House bubble, or sketches a more complete picture of Romney, or, depending on your taste, tells us exactly how Mr. Obama is a Muslim extremist who wants to steal your money and kill your babies.

 

obama from promise to power cover Breaking News or Political Smut? Its Both! THIS SEASON’S CROP OF BOOKS gives us 50 shades of Obama, painting him as everything from social-Islam-ist to centrist sellout. Most of them are execrable. But a handful are indispensable, and another handful are useful. Despite some of the more extreme criticism of him, Mr. Obama emerges from these books, on balance, as one our finest commanders-in-chief. It’s clear that the White House made a mistake in limiting press access, because, as a result, a good portion of America thinks that Mr. Obama has achieved nothing and that we’re worse off than four years ago.

Sadly, there are only a few glimpses of Mitt available in book form. The one decent effort is The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman (Harper, 416 pp., $15.99), written with help from the Boston Globe staff. The Mitt we get in this account, which spans his life to date, is the one most Americans first saw in the first debate: a smart, witty, awkward but tough centrist with a good handle on domestic policy. The campaign didn’t show this to the delegates in Tampa. They gave America Mitt the church and family man, holding the real Mr. Romney back for the debates, a tactic that now looks genius. Remember Bain Capital? Post-debates, it’s hardly even a talking point.

If political process books are the paragon of investigative journalism this election season, Bob Woodward is the genre’s Shakespeare. His latest, The Price of Politics (Simon and Schuster, 428 pp., $30), offers a fine look inside D.C.’s gridlock, complete with actual, on-the-record quotes. Mr. Obama screwed up from Day One, Mr. Woodward asserts, when he steamrolled the stimulus bill through Congress. The House bill passed without a single Republican vote, per the wishes of House whip Eric Cantor, whose advice on the bill had been ignored. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell vowed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The qualifier was that Mr. Obama had to change and work with the Republicans, which he later tried to do. Mr. Woodward documents how Mr. Obama and John Boenher almost achieved a grand bargain on the deficit, only to be derailed by GOP fiscal conservatives. Despite these efforts, however, Mr. McConnell never recanted.

Mr. Woodward quotes Peter Orszag, then the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, explaining the GOP’s insane logic. Without increasing revenue—i.e. raising taxes—the federal deficit will never go down, Mr. Orszag said. Of course, in December 2010 Congress passed a large tax-cut package, extending the Bush cuts and then some. Over 100 House Democrats voted against the bill. Mr. Woodward writes, “What was noted only in passing in most news accounts was that the cost was $900 billion … more than the controversial stimulus bill. It would be funded by increasing the deficit and adding to the national debt. In other words, it wouldn’t be paid for.”

When Joan Didion famously cut Mr. Woodward’s balls off for his “inconsistency left unexplored in the rush of the breaking story” in an acerbic 2007 essay for The New York Review of Books, it was a necessary castration. The Golden Boy of Watergate needed to be called out as a transcriber who offered no analysis. But in this era of information control, Mr. Woodward offers so many nuggets with attribution in The Price of Politics, I’d wager Ms. Didion would revise her opinion.

Mr. Obama is described in the Woodward book by various people in the same way. Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, says Mr. Obama has no COO to implement his decisions. Larry Summers says, “I don’t think people have a sense of his deep feelings around public philosophy.” Lawmakers found this remoteness and lack of organization frustrating. Despite his flaws, Mr. Obama still comes across as a highly effective chief executive who passed more legislation than his predecessors all the way back to LBJ.

Contrast this year with the last time a first-term incumbent was running for re-election. Eight years ago, George W. Bush was tied with John Kerry. All summer and fall, Karl Rove and the White House conspired to cover up the realities in Iraq. Reading Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor (Pantheon, 779 pp., $35), reminds us just how different things were. The book is incredible, 700 pages of Iraq war panorama. It’s offensive that a Navy SEAL’s account of Bin Laden’s killing is No. 1 on the best-seller list and Endgame is currently ranked No. 15,573 on Amazon.

The lies told by the Bush administration, as detailed in Endgame, border on criminal. In spring 2004, “the CIA told the White House … that the occupation authority had painted a picture that was far too rosy,” at the same time that a memo titled “Iraq: A Lost Cause?” had been issued by more than a dozen agencies. A worsening war didn’t stop Mr. Bush from scrawling “Let Freedom Reign!” on notes to Tony Blair or from giving public speeches about how America was winning in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was fighting on two fronts and Iraq was splintering toward civil war. The violence was so bad by the summer of 2004 that reporters couldn’t do their jobs for fear of kidnapping or death. The only metrics came from the Bush team. “How good we do is limited by how well we can communicate our success,” White House counsel Harriet Miers said. Hey, when your lawyer says lie, you lie. Even the military was concerned. “The notion that the campaign plan should aim to win over the American public was controversial: the command might exaggerate its accomplishments to secure backing at home,” Messrs. Gordon and Trainor write.

By late September, Mr. Bush was confident that Iraq was a non-issue in the election. “The best thing Kerry has is Zarqawi …” he told his pal Mr. Blair. Mr. Kerry likely lost the election by not hitting Mr. Bush harder on Iraq.The other factor was Karl Rove. Vanity Fair’s Craig Unger’s excellent book Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Kingdom of Power (Scribner, 308 pp., $26)shows just how good the boy wonder is at political assassination. Mr. Rove always denied he was behind the Swift Boat ads that painted Mr. Kerry as a wartime coward. But Mr. Unger convincingly ties the ads to three old Rove buddies: “Thanks to a lack of diligence by the media … Rove was able to draw a line between the Swift Boaters and the Bush campaign as if they were completely unrelated.”

The remarkable thing about the present election is that Mr. Obama is being persecuted to a greater degree than Mr. Bush was in ’04. Mr. Bush started an illegal war that killed a few hundred thousand Arabs and 4,500 Americans.Mr. Obama, well, didn’t. Iraq makes Benghazi-gate look quaint. The charges against Mr. Obama? He passed a stimulus bill, saved the auto industry and enacted universal health care. Give the Republicans credit: Joseph Goebbels would be proud of this hatchet job. And once again, Karl Rove is the Svengali. His two super PACs, Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, have raised a billion dollars and are largely responsible for the depiction of Mr. Obama as a do-nothing socialist.

Nice work, considering how effective Mr. Obama has been, especially on foreign policy. A trifecta of books—The Obamians by James Mann (Viking, 392 pp.,$26.95), Confront and Conceal by David Sanger (Crown, 488 pp. $28) and Kill or Capture by Daniel Klaidman (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp. $28)—show that the very skills that have hurt the president domestically were what have made him so effective as a wartime leader. His detached deliberations, cold analysis and ability to make unpopular, controversial executive decisions have, to borrow a term from Mr. Obama, “decimated” al Qaeda, ended the Bush wars and helped topple Qaddafi. Most of these books cover similar territory, but the kill list disclosed in Kill or Capture, in which Mr. Obama personally authorized assassinations, has shocked a lot of people on the left. Whether or not you approve of using executive power to assassinate enemies abroad, there’s no denying the policy has been effective. Ask bin Laden.

As the final debate showed, Mr. Romney has a lot to learn on foreign policy. (Russia and Putin are America’s No. 1 geopolitical foes?) Not that he’s even a real contender for the presidency, at least according to stat man Nate Silver, the breakout star of 2008, who predicted the election results in 49 of 50 states. Mr. Silver, who now writes for The New York Times, has penned The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—And Others Don’t (Penguin Press, 534 pp., $27.95), and it’s a mess of a book, with so many oddball graphs and strange comparisons and weird language that it made me want to take a break and read some poetry. To wit, here’s Mr. Silver on 9/11: “At a microscopic level, then—at the level of individual terrorists, or individual terror schemes—there are unlikely to be any magic-bullet solutions to predicting attacks. Instead, intelligence requires sorting the spaghetti strands of signals that I spoke about earlier.” He makes Donald Rumsfeld sound like Rimbaud.

But Mr. Silver’s finest prose is, in fact, in the numbers. He says Mr. Obama still has a two in three chance of winning, down from 80 percent a month ago. Assuming Mr. Silver’s right, these books on Mr. Obama are important documents in showing why a guy who never enacted a jobs bill, underestimated the severity of the great recession, let down his base and made countless errors is on his way to winning a second term. But more importantly, they show what the president has actually achieved, and it’s more than enough to reopen the spigots on 2008’s tears of joy.

editorial@observer.com