Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson have just authored "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election." It is a riveting account, combining big-picture analysis, important revelations and intriguing anecdotes.
Johnson is the author of 14 books and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Balz is the lead political writer for the Washington Post and, as editor of my college newspaper, had the foresight to give me my first byline.
I interviewed them recently, before the official release of their book.
Me: One of the most explosive parts of your book deals with Ted Kennedy and how he endorsed Barack Obama in part because he believed that Bill and Hillary Clinton "were misrepresenting things for racial reasons."
Balz: It bothered Kennedy immensely. What attracted Kennedy to Obama was Kennedy’s belief that Obama could transcend race, that his message was not racially based and America could move forward on the racial divide. But Kennedy believed the racial stuff [raised by the Clinton campaign] was getting cranked up in a way that was destructive and harmful to whoever was the nominee, that Obama would get characterized as the "black candidate" and that it could cost the Democrats the election.
Also, in a phone conversation with Bill Clinton, Kennedy believed Bill "trashed" Obama in a way that greatly disturbed [him].
Me: How did Bill Clinton go from being "America’s first black president" to being, at least in the view of some, a racially divisive figure?
Balz: I think he just got out of control. Part of it was understandable: This is a husband campaigning for his wife. He felt so strongly about her that he literally was prepared to do anything he could to help her get elected. His judgment got clouded by that. In his defense, there is nothing in Bill Clinton’s history that would suggest he would do anything that would divide the races. But it clearly hurt him. It cost him a lot.
Me: If Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had switched staffs, would Hillary have won?
Balz: She might have won. There is no question that the Obama team outperformed the Clinton team. But even if Hillary had had the Obama team, she still would have had her vote on the Iraq war.
Me: Haynes, you won your Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for your coverage of the civil rights movement in Selma, Ala. How crucial a factor was race in the 2008 campaign?
Johnson: Race is still the dominant factor in American life. It is always there. Barack Obama was the most unlikely candidate for president ever in American history due to his lack of experience and his marginal record, and then you add in the factor of race. I look back on it with awe that Obama made it. He maneuvered through the process. He didn’t court race, but he gave a great speech in Philadelphia about race.
Me: But didn’t the comments of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, force Obama to make that speech?
Johnson: I don’t think Obama would have given the speech had it not been for Wright. The Wright thing forced Obama to give an eloquent and incredibly important speech. Wright in the end helped Obama. But it almost destroyed him. He had to face race publicly. He had to speak to a new generation of Americans and reach a different kind of America that cuts across all the racial lines.
Me: Some have said that had Obama been white, he never would have gotten the nomination.
Johnson: I think that is exactly right. Had he just been a brilliant, articulate white man running for office after two years after being in the U.S. Senate, he would have gotten nowhere. The fact he was black, the fact of his background, the fact of his name, the fact of his eloquence, the fact he could touch chords that wanted to be touched, it all added up to him being right for the time. Had he not been black, he would not have made it to the presidency.
Me: You guys write that John McCain most likely would have pledged to serve only one term had Joe Lieberman been his running mate.
Balz: They talked to Lieberman about it, and Lieberman was quite happy to pledge to serve just one term!
Me: It is hard to imagine the Republican convention agreeing to put Joe Lieberman, a pro-choice Democrat, on the ticket.
Balz: It was a little divorced from reality. But the campaign was looking for a way to say to people: John McCain is an exceptional kind of politician. He is prepared to do what is best for the country and take a guy who is a Democrat onto the ticket. And we are going to try to find the best solutions for the country and serve only one term and then we are gone.
Me: So what happened?
Balz: Bill McInturff [McCain’s lead pollster] said: "Are you guys crazy?" And that killed it.
Me: Enter Sarah Palin. A net plus or a net minus?
Balz: Selecting Palin was a political risk they should not have taken. They did not appreciate that she was not ready for the rigors of a national campaign. There were things about Palin that were very impressive, like her connectivity with voters, particularly the Republican base. But the McCain campaign miscalculated Palin’s ability to reach beyond the base.
Me: Can Palin get the Republican nomination in 2012?
Balz: It seems pretty unlikely. Since the campaign, she has not done anything to make herself a more attractive candidate in 2012.
Me: Can Hillary Clinton run in 2016? She’d be 69.
Balz: Probably. But age will be a factor.
Me: What is one thing we have learned from the results of 2008?
Johnson: I think we have witnessed and are witnessing one of the great stories in our history. There is a sense of enormous pride in this country. Even for those who did not vote for Obama, people are proud we elected him. But the danger is that we are still a terribly polarized nation. There is a reservoir of good will in this country. But how long will it last?