Two Additions to the Political Reading List: Unbelievable and Thanks, Obama

Reuters / Carlo Allegri
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.

By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.

My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodrama by the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.

On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)

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This  is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:

  • Devil’s Bargain, a story about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump by my friend (and former Atlantic colleague) Joshua Green. It is fascinating, well-researched, and of lasting interest, despite Bannon’s ouster from the White House, because of his ongoing Breitbart- role.
  • Hillary Clinton’s own What Happened, as I argued 10 days ago, is much more interesting and edgy than the standard politician’s book. And while it places central responsibility for last year’s results on Hillary Clinton itself, it raises important questions about—and asks for similar introspection from—other participants, notably the “what about her emails?!?!” press.

Here are two more campaign-related books very much worth reading:

Unbelievable, by Katy Tur

I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.

In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and the darkness.

Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies. In a famous episode, he gave her a backstage kiss before he went onto a TV show.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:

His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….

“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”

He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.

“It’s Pew Research,” I say.

Now he’s fuming.


His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.

The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:

That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.

Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.

She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.

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Thanks, Obama, by David Litt

Thanks Obama is a very different book from these other three, starting with its focus on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns rather than 2016. Litt was a 20-something precinct worker in Obama’s 2008 campaign, and eventually became part of his White House speechwriting staff. He had worked for The Onion before trying political speechwriting, and his specialty at the White House (in addition to some heavy-weather policy work) was Obama’s comedy riffs. Among these were Obama’s last few White House Correspondents Dinner appearances, including his celebrated “Luther, the Anger Translator” routine at the 2015 dinner.

The book is genuinely charming, and perceptive. You can get an idea of Litt’s tone from his very effective Fresh Air interview last week.

White House speechwriters, as a class, are—well, writers. This makes it the more noticeable that the collection of effective memoir-books by them is thinner than you would expect. Walter Shapiro, mentioned above, was a speechwriter during the Carter administration—as was I, and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, and the novelist Jerry Doolittle, and the newspaper editor Griffin Smith, and the now-Congressional candidate Bob Rackleff, and the newspaper reporter Achsah Nesmith, and others.

You could find a similar lineup for most administrations (until this one). But graceful, instructive, wry speechwriter memoirs like Litt’s are the exception rather than the norm. I think Thanks, Obama will join the ranks of lasting works about the culture and texture of political life, and of coming-of-age accounts by staffers who grow up personally and politically at the same time. (This is a category whose towering examples range from literary memoir-essays like The Education of Henry Adams, to romans-a-clef like All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, to serious policy-essays like A Political Education by Harry McPherson. Please read them all!)

Staff memoirs are easier to write, or at least more fun, if you’re describing a meltdown or race-to-the-bottom political disaster—as in John Podhoretz’s mordantly comic Hell of a Ride, about his experience with George H.W. Bush. (I don’t agree with Podhoretz on much, but this is a funny, interesting book.) When I wrote about the Carter administration long ago in this magazine, it was also with a “how did that happen?” tone.

Litt takes on a much higher degree of difficulty by being mainly positive and respectful of Obama and his achievements. But he avoids a pious or reverent tone by directing many of his comic talents at himself. He’s aiming for, and mainly achieves, a self-presentation as a barely-skirting-disaster naif who gradually learns what he is supposed to do. The hoary Hollywood joke is that once you can fake sincerity, everything else is easy. The political counterpart involves being able to feign self-deprecation. It’s appealing in a speaker—one reason Donald Trump simply could not perform as a Correspondents Dinner-style after-dinner humorist is that self-deprecation is a necessary part of the schtick, but is wholly outside his range—and it’s appealing in an underling’s memoir like this.

For example:

Perhaps there are some people who, summoned to the Oval Office for the very first time, walk in there like it’s no big deal. Those people are sociopaths. For the rest of us, attending your first Oval Office meeting is like performing your own bris.

To make matters worse, when you have a meeting in the Oval Office, you don’t just go into the Oval Office. First you wait in a tiny, windowless chamber. It’s kind of like the waiting room in a doctor’s office, but instead of last year’s Marie Claire magazines they have priceless pieces of American art. And instead of a receptionist, there’s a man with a gun. And in a worst-case scenario, the man with a gun is legally required to kill you.

It turns out this little room is the perfect place to second- guess every life choice you have ever made… I was on the verge of losing it completely when one of the president’s personal aides emerged.

“Okay. He’s ready for you.”

To my credit, the first time I walked into the Oval Office, I did not black out. In front of me I could see a painting of the Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell. Behind me, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Emancipation Proclamation. Not a photocopy or poster. The. Emancipation. Proclamation. I didn’t turn to look at the document, but I could feel the message it was sending through the room.

“I’m here because I freed the slaves,” it seemed to say. “What are you doing here?”

And, when it comes to the But Seriously Now part of the book, Litt says:

Eight years in Obamaworld taught me focus. Each news cycle—already shrunk to twenty-four hours when POTUS took office—lasted mere seconds by the time he left. He faced constant pressure to approach every issue with the frantic, hair- on- fire urgency of a tweet. More than once, I found myself frustrated by the president’s patience. To me it seemed more like delay. But nine times out of ten, Obama was right. The secret to solving big problems, I learned, is knowing which little problems to ignore.

The list of things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages. I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.

But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grownups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.

And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld. For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult….

I read the book cover-to-cover in one evening. Very well done.

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It’s a dark time, with some positive notes. These are worth your attention.