We Americans have the misfortune to live in an age where political investigative journalism is largely dead. In marked contrasts to the days when Woodward and Berstein beat the pavement to get to the truth of political affairs, most of today’s media outlets consider their duties discharged after they’ve accurately reported what a candidate said or did–regardless of its context, larger meaning or even quite often whether it’s true or not. Recent political history is written far more often by journalists than by historians, so how do today’s less-than-investigative journalists do when they’re asked to write history? In trying to answer this question I decided to stack two recent books on the same subject–the Presidential election of 2012–against each other. In one corner is Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds: Obama and his Enemies, and the other Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Double Down. Both books are sequels; Alter previously wrote The Promise about the first half of Obama’s first term, and Double Down is the sequel to the same authors’ Game Change, about the 2008 election, which was famously made into a pretty entertaining HBO movie.
The Center Holds is a lucid, generally even-handed and serious attempt to analyze the 2012 election, but Alter, a longtime political journalist, frames the book equally as a history of the second half of Obama’s first term as he does a chronicle of the election. Alter carefully sets the political stage, beginning with the Democrats’ disastrous 2010 election, Republican animosity and “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” and especially the money and demographic dynamics of the electoral battlefield. Mitt Romney begins to emerge as a major character about halfway through, after the Republican “Clown Car” primary season which he doesn’t spend much time on. After this Obama and Romney go head-to-head with campaign organizations organized on vastly different principles. Things that happen–Obama’s botched first debate, the Benghazi attack, Romney’s damaging “47%” remarks–play out against these backdrops, rather than appearing to alter the trajectory of events by themselves.
In 2012 Barack Obama recorded several campaign ads in Spanish, reflecting the changing demographics of the electorate. Alter deals with this more in-depth than do Halperin and Heilemann.
Alter spends considerable time getting into the back-story of events, context that may not (and often did not) make the news reports. For example, he profiles Scott Prouty, the bartender who surreptitiously recorded Mitt’s “47%” speech, and reveals that initially the issue that motivated Prouty was not Romney’s out-of-touch disdain for half of America, but sweatshops in China. Alter also spends a long time describing how the Obama and Romney campaigns’ fundraising and voter outreach efforts actually worked, which is quite interesting. Because there were so few undecided voters who could be persuaded to change their minds in 2012, mobilization of existing supporters was the real strategy of both sides. In sketching these contextual strokes Alter is writing much more like a historian than a journalist.
Though it’s a good book, The Center Holds isn’t perfect. Alter can’t always resist toying amusedly with “media catnip” items that wouldn’t have been of much interest to a historian; his focus on Clint Eastwood’s bizarre rant at the empty chair during the Republican Convention is an example. There’s also something that feels somewhat artificial about his portrayal of Obama, whom he apparently did not interview directly for the book. Alter writes confidently and often about what he thinks is going on in Obama’s mind, but Barack Obama is such a complex personality that I don’t think anyone, except maybe Michelle, really knows how his mind works. Alter seems to trust thoughts and judgments communicated to him in in-person interviews more than he does his own analyses based on documentary sources–which is how a journalist writes, but not a historian. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it does leave us with many of the same limitations that journalism has vis-a-vis interpretive history.
The infamous “47%” comments are mentioned in both books, but The Center Holds tells the elaborate back-story of the video, where Double Down mostly glosses over it.
Halperin and Heilemann’s Double Down is a bigger book than Alter’s, nearly 500 pages. Unfortunately it struck me as considerably less substantive. In fact, its portrayal of the 2012 election is so different from The Center Holds that aside from the names Romney and Obama, it’s hard to believe it was written about the same event. Halperin and Heilemann focus on totally different things than Alter does. Where Alter stresses more impersonal factors in the election–money, technology, and changing demographics–H&H focus on people and personalities. Double Down is essentially a chronicle of what candidates said and did, and not really how they saw themselves or what they were trying to do.
This in itself isn’t a bad approach, except that the people H&H portray just aren’t very well fleshed out and at some points are simply unbelievable. Joe Biden, for example, is largely a cartoon, a lovable but insecure curmudgeon whose gaffes (which, in the real world, largely turn out to be totally inconsequential) come with the regularity of one-liner jokes in a TV sitcom. Michelle Bachmann, a politician so inexperienced and so extreme in her views that she appears almost insane to most people, is portrayed as generally calm, rational and competent as a candidate, though saddled with stage fright and migraines. H&H spend an inordinate amount of time on the candidacy of Jon Huntsman, a hopeless Republican also-ran whose campaign made no substantive difference to the nomination process. I suspect the reason why Huntsman is so prominent in the narrative is because H&H found a really good source who was willing to provide unusually detailed information.
Mitt Romney’s concession speech. Both books agree that he was so convinced he was going to win right up until the end that he hadn’t prepared a concession; this was thrown together at the last moment.
This is the problem with Double Down: there’s no sense of proportion, no connection of the personalities to broader goals. The candidates move across the board like chess pieces, all relatively interchangeable except for the quirks and peccadilloes (Bachmann’s headaches, Biden’s gaffes, Obama’s supposed dislike for Bill Clinton) that the authors are eager to expose. The authors never make any broader arguments about what these candidates are doing here. They’re cameos. H&H often refer to them by cute nicknames. Minnesota governor Tim Palwenty is called “T-Paw,” Chris Christie is “Big Boy,” Bill Clinton is “the Big Dog,” etc. In fact there’s a lot of glib wording, figures of speech and slang throughout the book that in my opinion really dampens its effect as a serious chronicle of an election. Example, page 453: “Romney tried to match the Boss [Obama] and the Big Dog [Bill Clinton] with a celebrity of his own: Meat Loaf.”
Although both books have their problems, The Center Holds is much better as a work of history, whereas Double Down seems conceived more as entertainment than history or even journalism. Yet strangely I got the sense that neither book managed to throw a rope around the 2012 election is it really was. Maybe asking journalists to parse historical truth and make reasoned arguments about it is, to steal a line from Obama, “beyond [their] pay grade.” Still, my sense is that the real story of the election is going to have to wait until a historian writes it. I hope that day comes soon, because it’s an interesting subject.
Grade (The Center Holds): A minus
Grade (Double Down): C+