A Confederacy of Political Dunces
A forgettable campaign: Obama was the first incumbent not to stand on his first-term record
This book bills itself as an "explosive inside account of the 2012 presidential election," and it is explosive in its way. To those not particularly conversant with the methods of American politics, what is explosive is the apparently nonchalant exposé of the total cynicism and vapidity of the entire process of choosing the holder of the greatest office within the gift of any people on earth, an office that has often been distinguished by occupants who were very considerable, and even great, statesmen. To those who admire America and wish it well, and are persuaded that it is a great and generally benign country, and haven't noticed the evolution of American political mores in the last 20 years, this book will, indeed, be explosively disconcerting. To America's haters and the merely contemptuous, this book will confirm them in their views very satisfactorily, in a manner too conducive to enhanced complacency to qualify as an explosion.
The authors, two editors at hackneyed American middlebrow weekly magazines — Halperin at Time and Heilemann at New York — are exhausted from chasing more timely media, huffing and puffing clichés to keep up, and strain to be stylistically trendy as they render the inexorable chronology of these banal events. People are frequently "discombobulated", sometimes by "humungous" developments. More racily, the protagonists generally refused to be "force-fed shitburgers", and the reader is carpet-bombed by more salacious four-letter words, not only in citations of politicians and their entourages in slightly excited or populist moments, but in the authors' own composition, to keep the flavour of the narrative consistent with the quality of the dialogue.
This reaches its coruscation in a quotation in which the f-word is repeated 11 times in a 22-word exclamatory sentence. There's nothing wrong with this if there's a point to it, but there isn't, except the election of the US president. Many readers will remember the shrieks of moral outrage over Nixon's moderate coarseness in the Watergate transcripts. Everyone in this book, including the authors and many political women, make Nixon (or even Gordon Brown), sound like a Baptist parson. This is not Theodore White's Making of the President, or even Andrew Rawnsley's breathless account of the rise of New Labour, Servants of the People. It is two journeymen editors at tired and marginal magazines blending like nanny into an Edwardian family photograph and maintaining consistency with what they hear.
They are either masters of the expressionless, which is not their sometimes slick and snappy, sometimes unresourceful literary style; or they are too far gone and anaesthetised by the immense, garish, corrupt circus in which they operate, to notice how fatuous and cynical the entire process of choosing an American president has become. The authors present their story, sometimes in excruciating detail, and always with a sophomoric formality that makes no distinction between important and unimportant people, in presidential electoral terms, and important occurrences and the daily rounds. The authors have no sense of history: to read this book, one would think William Jefferson Clinton and Thomas Jefferson were a generation apart, not that President Jefferson is mentioned (any more than are Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Eisenhower, or Franklin D. Roosevelt). The names Kennedy, Johnson, Bush and Reagan rarely arise and might as well have been Mount Rushmore figures. Even the universal, equal-opportunity, no-fault, one-size-fits-all totem, Richard Milhous Nixon, is almost completely absent. Of course, this is a book about the 2012 election, but all of the above were elected to the office sought (23 times), and bringing in a bit of context would have made the intellectual and ethical aridity of the 2012 campaign, and the mediocrity of the candidates, more clear.