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Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History

4/5. What it sounds like. Yeah yeah, I'm a nerd, don't I get enough of this stuff already, blah blah blah.

But let me explain something about John Dickerson, journalist, pundit, historian. He's an extremely successful history nerd who has the air of someone from a different era, and his sense of humor is – I mean, he's a walking dad joke. But here's what I actually like about him.

He quotes women.

Not just about women's suffrage or "women's issues." Not occasionally. But all the time. In every context. Talking about politics. Rendering their political opinions. Being involved in power. He quotes women senators from seventy years ago and women convention floor bosses. He just . . . quotes women. Like they're a part of history. I had no idea how extraordinary this was until I read it, and was astonished.

I could get all psychological here and theorize that it's because of Dickerson's mother, who is a legend in her own right, and who had an extraordinary impact on him. He wrote a book about her, in fact, so clearly he is used to the idea of women being movers in history. But the truth is, I don't care why he does it, I'm just glad he does.
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Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in AmericaCollision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America by Dan Balz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I will be sitting out the midterms this year, so I wanted a hit of wonkiness to tide me over, and here it is. You already know if you'll like this sort of thing, so I'll confine myself to saying that this is well-organized and interesting from a trade of elections perspective, but far less gossipy than the casual reader seems to want. I liked it.

Some observations: this book offers an excellent overview of what the Obama for America internet operation was doing and how it worked – I was particularly interested in getting a few more details on the Facebook utilization and how the tools worked to suggest that, e.g., rather than sharing this campaign video with your entire feed, why not send it to Facebook friends X and Y, undecided voters in Florida that you seem to know well. For me, the most interesting aspect of that part of the campaign is the strides made in deciding who not to contact. I'm a swing-state resident and a political donor (though not to presidential campaigns because that is a total waste of my money) and I was contacted by OFA multiple times in 2008. In 2012, I was not contacted at all because, presumably, the OFA algorithm determined correctly that I was a sure thing and did not require the use of resources. Works for me. The only annoying thing about that is I suspect it will only increase the romance of the "independent" voter in the popular consciousness. Note: these people do not actually exist. You can almost always tell what a supposedly "independent" voter is going to do, except in a very small slice of the population. It just so happens that small slice is increasingly valuable these days. But you get a full third of Americans claiming to be independent voters because it sounds sexy and independent-minded, when actually it's a giant self-deception. But a lot of these people actually like being courted by campaigns, which is utterly baffling to me, and with more and more campaign resources being precisely targeted to them, I guess they're welcome to enjoy the fruits of the massive money machine they continually bitch about.

Also, I am increasingly suspicious of the Romney campaign's post election "couldn't be done" narrative. I mean, don't get me wrong, I thought with 95% confidence Obama was going to win by the spring, and so did anyone else who knew what they were looking at, and that was without the series of lucky breaks he got in the summer and fall. But no race is unwinnable, and this idea that the Romney campaign was irretrievably outclassed from day one, particularly on the electronic and ground operations, seems self-serving. "Oh woe is us, they built better software than we did, if only we'd known we would have given up in June." Yeah, whatever, dudes. You lost. Suck it up and figure out where you lost it (early and organizationally) and stop acting like you bore no responsibility whatsoever.




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Double Down: Game Change 2012Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I picked this up the day it came out, which is one of those character-revealing statements, probably. Anyway, this is perhaps more gossipy and personality-driven than the 2008 volume, which is pretty impressive considering this book contains no John Edwards and very little Sarah Palin. The buzz in the circles I move in was mostly about Christie, as this book contains leaked details of his vetting file compiled by Romney's VP search team. And pretty unpleasant stuff it is, too. But you don't need to read the book for that; just wait about two years and you'll get the lowdown, whether you want it or not.

Mostly, though . . . eh. The funny thing about 2012 was, the more you knew about the election, the less interesting it was. And by necessity, I knew a shit ton about it. I can't count the number of times my friends were caught in spasms of anguish over it and I was like, "eh, take a chill pill." I mean, 2008 was genuinely interesting and, for a long time, genuinely suspenseful. 2012 was neither – the narrative crystalized early and never budged, and the electoral math was writing on the wall not long after. So what you've got left is Romney sticking his foot in his mouth, the President demonstrating to everyone how much he fuckin' hated debates, and The Donald. Just not that interesting, and this is me saying that.




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The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme CourtThe Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Sadly not the trashy gossip fest I was in the mood for. I wanted either another hundred pages discussing the court's role in the political system and propounding a new theory of case analysis, or I wanted some juicy judicial sexploits. Sadly, I got neither. The "revelations" in this book are nothing new if you pay a little attention to the court – Scalia and Ginsburg were besties, Thomas has a bizarre and alarming worldview, etc.

Still, the lay reader would probably enjoy this as a portrait of personalities, and for the capsule histories of momentous cases from the Reagan years to about 2006. (Though this book did lead me to discover that I can still recite footnote 4 of carolene Products from memory, which, honestly, I'd be happier not knowing that about myself).

Anyway, this didn't change my opinions of anyone. You don't catch me agreeing with Scalia very often, but I am in complete sympathy with his opinion of Kennedy. I remember when I was putting together my constitutional law notes – I had this beautiful 70 page outline with case holdings and capsule dissents, and at the end of every statement of a Kennedy holding I wrote, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean. My feelings on O'connor are complicated, and I suspect Toobin would say the same, so those sections worked well for me. And of course my opinions on Roberts and Alito were formed realtime – I actually worked on a team that vetted the short list of nominees that leaked that summer for a civil rights organization, which sounds roughly a billionty times sexier than it actually was.

So this was well researched and diverting, but ultimately inconsequential for me.




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Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a LifetimeGame Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Unapologetically gossipy play-by-play of the 2008 primaries and general. Written so engagingly that it made me anxious at a few points, even though, hi, it’s not like I don’t know the spoilers. But this is entirely a trees book and not at all a forest book, despite the title and marketing. This is all day-by-day campaign strategy and not at all chronicle of the monetary/demographic/electronic/organizational revolutions that arguably occurred and are still occurring. Surprising, because when you talk to Halperin face-to-face, he’s all forest and no trees, in a really good way.*

But whatever, maybe it was too soon, maybe everyone was still living in it too much to see out of it when they conducted their interviews. And their access really is unparalleled. And if what you want is a heaping scoop of relatively reliable personality dissection with campaign strategy as a side dish, you honestly can’t do better than this. It’s just, you know, more about how the Clintons sabotage/make/unmake/worship each other, and less about the seachange that 2008 actually was.

*Though Halperin did insist in my hearing once that Romney is honestly a great guy one-on-one, not at all awkward or uncomfortable or bizarre the way he is on camera. Oookay. It’d probably take an entire new book to convince me of that.



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The Madisonian Constitution (The Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought) The Madisonian Constitution by George Thomas


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Fneh. The nicest word I can come up with for this book is “opaque.” It’s actually a pretty interesting argument about Constitutional interpretation, but I won’t bother dissecting it here because seriously, when the author said it was the book version of his graduate thesis I went, “ohhhhhhh,” and not in a good way. It’s also one of those books by nonlawyers trying to supersede legal interpretations of something (the Constitution, here) by using the tools of another discipline, which is fine and dandy until you fail to deal with the legal interpretations on their own lexical terms, so you just look like you don’t understand them. Which I think Thomas actually does, for the most part, so. Fneh.

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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I picked this up largely on the strength of a hilarious Daily Show interview with the author. After reading, I think it was more a case of Jon Stewart’s awesomeness overwhelming all other considerations. Tragic.

Look, I could talk about how stilted the construction of this bio-history is, and I could talk about the frankly odd pacing and even odder notes. But my real problem with this book is a lot more subtle. Take a quote like this one: “. . . but Jackson, like many husbands before and since, may have loved his wife rather more than he listened to her.” Ninety nine percent innocuous, right? With just a smidge of a hint of an undertone, but hey the context all makes sense, so all right. Except when you add up a whole book of innocuous sentences like that, those little hints all accumulate into more of an . . . odor.

Jackson was an asshole of extraordinary proportions, and this book spent enough time rolling around with him to pick up some whiff of it. In that accidental way that’s just sloppy rather than authentic. History is by definition a project of perspective, but there are histories I trust, and this wasn’t one of them. Oddly, it was the extended passages condemning Jackson for the brutalities of Indian removal that did it. Pointing out the most obviously awful things the man did in a book with a clear pro-Jackson bias doesn’t add nuance or depth, it just makes both the condemnation and the extensive praise look shallow. We hear so much about Jackson as the founder of the Democratic party – of the concept of the President as an instrument of the people (his opponents thought it was inappropriate for him to ever address the press, incidentally, because he should only speak to Congress, and Congress should speak to the people). But never does it occur to this book that Jackson’s democratic principles were actually connected in a complicated way to his paternalism (he called himself the father of the nation, ug ug ug), and this book wouldn’t know a critique of paternalism if it patted it on the head and sent it off to bed.

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Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861 Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861 by Earl M. Maltz


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Straight legal history, with a few side trips into SCOTUS Justice Biography and political history. Dry as dust, and kind of frustrating for the way it gestures casually at the thing I’m actually interested in without following through: the psychology of a legal regime wrestling with slavery and trying to keep the Union together. This book just rattles off some conclusory statements about what each Justice believed of the rightness and legality of slavery, then says something almost glib about recourse to neutral principles for decision-making, without ever really engaging with all the snarled tensions there. And you can’t tell me there aren’t historical documents.

To be fair, other people have tackled that project, and this book was – I think – deliberately meant as a purely legal historical project. I just happened not to find it useful or interesting.

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Americans with Disabilities Americans with Disabilities by Leslie Pickering Francis


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A collection of themed essays evaluating the ADA ten years out. Interdisciplinary and generally strong, with pieces on moral philosophy, law, sociology, and medicine. But ultimately I found it uneven and frustrating in that way a book written predominately by able-bodied academics is when I'm a disabled occasional political activist.

Some pieces were excellent – Ron Amanson's "Biological Normality and the ADA" deconstructs the categories of normal and abnormal function in ways analogous to previous deconstructions of race as a biological category. But then we have pieces like Lenard Davis's "Go to the Margins of the Class: Hate Crimes and the ADA," which is terrifying as it discusses the epidemic of sexual and physical violence against people with disabilities, and utterly jaw-droppingly enraging as it blithely proclaims an end to racial and gender discrimination in this country. I just . . . I don't even!

It is a good collection, and well organized. I found most helpful the sections on medicine – healthcare cost-rationing as a violation of the ADA, wrongful birth and wrongful life lawsuits ('if my doctor had told me x, I would have had an abortion,'), etc. I got bogged down in the opening sections, because I have a pretty low tolerance for political philosophy these days. I am beginning to have a knee-jerk near-allergic reaction to Rawls and theories of justice and historical counterfactuals. These days they make me want to shake people and explain what the word "empiricism" actually means, and tell them to get down from the ivory tower for a few days and go feed the fucking homeless or something. 'Hem, where was I?

Right, good book, a bit frustrating, a bit written about disprivilige from a place of privilege, you know the drill.

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Team of Rivals

And on the topic of skinny dudes from Illinois who get elected President . . .

Man. Nine hundred firm, densely-researched, elegant pages on Lincoln and his cabinet, focusing on the political rivals he turned into friends because, well, he was not kidding when he said "with malice towards none." It's a book about leadership – how to get people to do what you need them to do when they don't want to while treating them with respect and courtesy. Though really, I can just shorthand to say it's a book about getting people.

I really like what Goodwin does here. She's the sort of historian who lets you see her hands nearly the whole time, but in that calm, measured way where she's just holding up these people for you to look at, not pinching their cheeks and primping them up first. Lincoln has been a particular historical darling for the past few decades, and I'm really not immune. This book is unsentimental nearly all the time, and it moved me a great deal. And not just because I was thinking about comparisons – presidents who write, presidents who orate, presidents who believe in consensus without believing implicitly in centrism. I was making those comparisons, though.

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