If there’s one positive thing that can be said about Richard Wolffe’s Renegade: The Making of a President — one of the more high-profile releases among the torrent of recent Obama books — it’s that it succeeds as an exercise in stenography.
The book is so loaded with details it can’t help containing something of interest for nearly every reader curious about our enigmatic president. This, however, does not exactly make for a compelling read. While knowing what exactly Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod ate for lunch on election day and the name of the deli where he bought it could possibly be of interest to some future historian, there should be a notice for casual readers on the first page: “Warning: Slogging ahead.”
Now, of all the faults a book can have, being larded with detail is one of the least serious. As a reporter for Newsweek — the publication that undisputedly came out on top in the campaign sweepstakes for which major media organization would be most obsequious toward the Democratic nominee — Wolffe had unprecedented access. The book is based on numerous exclusive interviews and on Wolffe’s presence at any number of intimate moments on the campaign trail. He makes the most of it, and the book really does feel as if it is full of unguarded comments.
For starters, Obama’s ample ego is regularly on display. At one point early in the campaign, longtime Obama consigliere and fundraiser Marty Nesbitt wonders aloud, “What would [your election] say about incumbent politicians? What would be the message to them if the American people elected you?” Wolffe notes that “Obama savored the thought” before responding, “Well, they’d be quaking in their boots.” Far be it from me to suggest that congressional incumbents are hardly wetting their pants now that Obama is in office; if anything, a unified party government has made the dishonest and corrupt more brazen. But it is telling that Obama thought his mere presence would make a difference.
When Wolffe is lucky, the quotation he gives is revealing on its own, as this one is. Too often, though, when an interesting line drops into Wolffe’s lap, his inclination is simply to dutifully report it rather than probe. For example, Obama tells Wolffe, “I was surprised by the slow pace of the Senate. In the state legislature, we could get a hundred bills passed during the course of a session. In the Senate it was maybe twenty. And I think that made me realize how resistant to change Washington is generally.” Equating quantity of legislation with change is a revealing thought, which cries out for some critical follow-up. Time and again, though, Wolffe lets an intriguing statement drop; he must keep swimming ahead, on to the next insignificant detail, like some authorial shark.
Of course, we could scarcely expect objectivity from a Newsweek reporter, let alone from one who, while he was covering Bush’s White House, regularly showed up on Keith Olbermann’s show to enable goofy Bush-bashing antics. Last year, Wolffe co-authored an article for Newsweek that summed up the GOP thus: “The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower- and middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting in the inner cities. . . . It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as ‘the other’ — as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots (Obama is a Christian) and hangs around with America-haters.” So that explains the GOP: racism and fearmongering. Thanks for the primer.
Speaking of hanging around with America-haters, here’s how Wolffe describes an unannounced visit to an Obama campaign event. “Across the gym, glancing repeatedly toward the cameras, is a balding, overweight, late-middle-aged man with an earring in one ear, and a New York Times under his arm. He wears a black short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned to reveal a long-sleeved red T-shirt hanging loosely over faded blue jeans. When he starts posing for photos with voters, his face becomes clear: Bill Ayers, the former 1960s radical and proxy for Republican attacks on Obama’s supposedly soft touch on terrorists. Only here, he looks like a schlub more threatening to a cinnamon roll than to the Pentagon.”
Note the generous use of weasel words — “former 1960s radical and proxy for Republican attacks on Obama’s supposedly soft touch on terrorists” — and then the coup de grace: “more threatening to a cinnamon roll than to the Pentagon.” Of course, Ted Bundy looked like the all-American boy next door. So what does Ayers’s appearance prove? But as an exercise in snide dismissal, this passage succeeds masterfully. (And who, one can’t help wondering, wanted his picture taken with Ayers?)
Then there’s Wolffe’s summation of the Jeremiah Wright affair. At one point Wolffe notes that the campaign’s initial rhetoric on Wright “was not entirely true” — about as close to an actual criticism as Wolffe comes in the book. But don’t worry, gentle reader: Ultimately l’affaire Wright doesn’t amount to much: “Trinity [Wright’s church] was the place where Barack married Michelle and they baptized their daughters. But its role in Obama’s religious and political life was vague: a presence, but not a pivotal one.” Wolffe then breezes on to some unearned character insight about Obama’s mother to justify such an astonishing conclusion.
If one is indeed a believer — and we have no reason to suspect that Obama is not sincere in his Christian faith — where one chooses to worship is vitally important. Furthermore, Obama was very close personally to Wright for many years. No amount of spin from Wolffe is going to change that.
While there is utility in a campaign book full of interesting reported details, don’t even try to unpack any larger insights Wolffe may have about the meaning of Obama. Very early on, Wolffe takes a stab at explaining the title of his book: “He was a political upstart, the candidate named Renegade by the Secret Service, and he repeatedly broke the rules. . . . Although he was a renegade, he was also a cautious and pragmatic one, who played by the rules when he needed to win. On the surface, his performance was as steady as his resting heart rate of just sixty beats a minute.”
Right, so he’s a renegade even when he’s being cautious and pragmatic. Come again? The truth is probably just that Wolffe thought Renegade was a cool title. And the fact remains that Obama is such an enigmatic figure that it would be difficult for even someone with Wolffe’s access to figure out what makes him tick.
However, that’s no excuse for a complete lack of critical inquiry. Again, I salute Wolffe’s attention to detail — but anyone can straightforwardly report what happened and what was said. Real insight demands the application of critical faculties. This is especially true when moving from the realm of political reportage to substantive long-form journalism. That is the difference between this useful book and an interesting and insightful one.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.