Best American Political Writing 2008
ed. Royce Flippin
378 pages • Public Affairs • October 2nd, 2008
Best American Political Writing 2008 is a selection of articles from such publications as The New Yorker, The Nation, Esquire, & Vanity Fair, so it would be fair to assume that it is not going to be a work of apology for the Republican party and the legacy of George W. Bush. The theme of the pieces, published between June 2007 and April 2008, is the necessary change at the end of the Bush presidency, “of how our country has gone astray and investigations into how we are scrambling toward what we hope will be a brighter future,” in the words of editor Royce Flippin.
Culturally and politically, the US is the dominant force in the West, the last great Super Power, the centre of empire. What such articles provide, as Todd S. Purdum writes in the preface, is “the middle distance between current events and history that magazine writing is uniquely suited to provide.” In other words it is a step beyond the information overload of the daily new cycle and an attempt to understand the meaning, as opposed to the day-to-day process, of current events.
The first of the four sections is titled ‘The Race’, and it looks at the Democratic and Republican primaries. Now that the election is over, and Obama has been sworn in as the 44th president, this is a compelling and instructive selection.
The first article, ‘Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters’ by Andrew Sullivan, was published in December 2007, and is the most prescient in the book. Obama, Sullivan argues, embodies an idea of change that no other candidate in the race could because he is beyond the era of Vietnam politics. There has been a war in American since the days of the war in Vietnam that “has crippled America”. It was at the centre of Bill Clinton presidency, and it was the reason that John Kerry faltered in 2004. The prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency would not end it. “It is a war about war, about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama – and Obama alone – offers the possibility of a truce.” To understand what America has become, what it can become, and why Obama is the ideal candidate to bring about change, this is essential reading. Although it is virtually impossible not to be cynical about politics and politicians in the age of spin and the superficial 24/7 news cycle, Sullivan’s article points to a way forward.
George Packer’s ‘The Choice’, published in January 2008, outlines the strengths of the Hillary Clinton campaign, which is of further interest that she is Secretary of State. Amanda Fortini’s ‘The Feminist Reawakening’, published in April 2008, discusses the sexism that almost defined mass media coverage of Clinton on the campaign trail. A typical example, and not from the right-wing, was Tucker Carlson at MSNBC who said, “Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.”
The Politics Lite coverage provided by the mass media is a subject that informs most of the articles in this section, and indeed the collection as a whole, with their coverage of the black candidate, the woman candidate, the aged candidate. John Heilemann discusses how this affected the Republican ticket in the April 2008 piece ‘Is John McCain Bob Dole?’.
In his analysis of a fundamental change brought about by the Obama campaign that almost went unnoticed, Tim Dickinson outlines the grass-roots campaigning of the Obama team, and how fundamental the internet proved to its success. “The Obama campaign has shattered the top down, command-and-control, broadcast-TV model that has dominated American politics since the early 1960s.” The campaign mobilized thousands of people and created an on-the-ground team of supporters that the other campaigns could not match.
The section ‘Who We Are Now’ starts with Drew Westen’s ‘How McCain and Obama Beat the Odds: Delegate Math and the Emotional Logic of the Political Brain’. This postscript to Westen’s book The Political Brain is about why voters judge candidates not with their heads but their emotions. It is as disturbing as Clive Thompson’s article ‘Can You Count on Voting Machines?’, published in January 2008. The answer is no, and not just because it is easier to rig computers (although there is a certain amount of evidence that this led to the 2004 Bush victory) but because computer systems are not always reliable.
The farewell to Bush in ‘So Long, Buckaroo’, and the analysis of the Iraq war in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About War’ makes for disturbing reading. That Clinton’s indiscretions led to impeachment but the involvement of the Bush administration in the manipulation of information leading to war in Iraq, and the green-lighting of torture in off-shore CIA prisons, did not is hard to make sense of. With the advent of the Obama presidency, which, thanks to his use of the Executive Order, has started as promised, this is an essential volume that looks back in order to constructively look forward to a time of real change.
“It is a war about war – and about culture
and about religion and about race. And in that
war Obama – and Obama alone – offers the
possibility of a truce.“
– Andrew Sullivan
Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters