Books review: Writing the American Election

This discussion of two recent books relevant to US politics was posted on the Prospect website.
June 2008
Richard North Patterson, The Race (MacMillan, £16.99)
Arthur M Schlesinger, Journals 1952-2000 (Penguin Putnam, £25)

One of the puzzles of the US presidential coverage is why British journalists are given so much space in news and comment pages. The current presidential election is gripping but as our London-based commentariat pontificate surely it makes more sense to go to source., Newsweek, as well as Slate, Drudge, Huffington and the campaign sites themselves means we get US politics as they are cooking, not re-heated by British correspondents.
There is another reason to avoid the repetitious and samey US reporting. American writers – factual and novelists – give so much better accounts of what is going on. Nothing you will read of John McCain will be as good as Richard North Patterson’s ‘The Race.’ This is simply the best novel about politics in any language since Joe Klein’s ‘Primary Colors.’ "The Race" has as its hero a senator who was captured and tortured when his plane was shot down. Not McCain over Vietnam but the handsome Corey Grace over Iraq in the first Gulf War. Patterson puts a decent distance between his hero and McCain but although not quite a roman a clé, "The Race" has in thin disguise Rupert Murdoch, Collin Powell, and various conservative political pastors like Jimmy Swaggart and Bob Jones.
The Republican Corey Grace has to decide how far he will go in bowing before religious and media interests in order to win the nomination. His opponent is a Catholic senator who condemns homosexuality, and promises the religious lobbies all they want to hear on abortion and stem cell research. "The Race" is perfectly paced and researched. It is located in the Republican camp but takes the reader into the heart of political darkness that the ad hominem and misogynist ad feminam brutality of the Clinton-Obama fight has revealed.
The climax at the Repubican convention as the liberal(ish) Republican hero fights it out with the moral majority Christian coalitionists is a thrill a paragraph. For the Democrats there is no better guide to the mood and passions of a presidential contest than Arthur Schlesinger’s marvellous journal of US politics from Truman to Clinton. Schlesinger, a pure blood public intellectual, was a personal friend or close contact of every important Democratic political figure (and many on the right like Henry Kissinger, whose description of Donald Rumsfeld as "the rottenest person" he had ever encountered in government is worth the book’s price alone). Although linked with the Kennedy brothers, Schlesinger was his own man and confident as a star Harvard historian in his intellectual independence and judgement.
He rightly obsesses rightly with the power of political words. Adlai Stevenson’s nomination speech in 1952 was "a brilliant literary document, complex and carefully wrought in its composition had wonderful passages of political polemic; and it was suffused throughout with a sense of the immensity and impenetrability of the crisis of our time."
Great speeches inspire the liberal-left. But pedestrian speechifiers like Nixon, Eisenhower and Bush, père et fils, often win power. Obama Barrack is currently wowing Americans with his verbal fireworks. But here is John F Kennedy in 1960 on a favourite tribune of the Democratic Party, Hubert Humphrey, whose liberal podium performances raised cheers. "Hubert is too hot for the present mood of the people. He gets people too excited, too worked up. What they want today is a more boring, monotonous personality like me." Senator McCain might take comfort from that observation. So might Gordon Brown.
In 1972, Schlesinger noted : " Incredible as it may seem, it really looks as if George (McGovern) will get the Democratic nomination…He was right to declare so early, and he has shown an accurate intuition on the issues." Barack Obama also declared a 15 months ago. Will his fate be that of George McGovern?
In January 1992, Schlesinger comes back from a trip to Europe and wrote: "My return has witnessed the decline and , I fear, the fall of Bill Clinton". Being a great diarist does not equal perfect judgement. But to read Schlesinger’s journal entries is to be taken into the US presidential electoral process in a way no British writer could manage. The highs and lows, the incessant compromises, and the disappointment that emerge once power is won are all on display. But so is the idealism, the desire to use state power creatively, and a republican, Whitmanesque belief that democracy and political engagement are great public goods.
The 2008 US presidential contest is important and we can read about it every day thanks to the web. This novel and set of diaries are perfect context reading. Thanks to the internet and Amazon we no longer need British reporters to tell us what is happening in America. It is time for our editors to look east across the Channel, across the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. That is where our best journalists should be if we are to understand our European destiny as well as the wider troubled, complex world.