Review: Politico e-books

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post on June 25, 2013.

In the opening anecdote of Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin’s The End of the Line, their behind-the-scenes e-book about the last month of the 2012 presidential campaign, we join our regularly scheduled election already in progress:

It was more than an hour after the networks had called the election, and Mitt Romney had not addressed the media or made the traditional concession phone call to the winner.  David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were agitated.  Obama’s campaign manager called the Romney campaign manager and got his voice mail.  “He’ll call,” Obama told his team.  Finally, at 12:30 a.m., after much of America had seen the outcome and gone to bed, Obama’s phone rang.  “Hello, Mr. President, it’s Mitt Romney…”

The End of the LinePolitico goes on on a limb to call the series “a new form of campaign chronicle, combining the in-depth reporting of a book with the immediacy of deadline journalism.”  I think that’s largely right, but the depth and immediacy necessarily work at cross purposes.

The e-book is the fourth in the Politico Playbook 2012 series that Politico and Random House published during — and this volume about a month after — the 2012 campaign.  (Politico Playbook is the name of Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen’s influential morning tip-sheet, which has quotes and links to news stories that are making the rounds, and — oddly — birthday wishes to D.C. political and media figures.)

The first e-book in the series, The Right Fights Back by Allen and historian Evan Thomas, was published in November 2011 as the Republican primary battle was heating up. It zig-zagged through the Republican challengers’ campaigns and included a lot of gossipy, anecdotal tidbits.

The second, Inside the Circus, also by Allen and Thomas and largely about the campaign for the GOP nomination, included a previously unreported story about Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had back surgery shortly before jumping into the campaign and was taking pain medication, loudly singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in a public restroom before one of the Republican primary debates.

The third, Obama’s Last Stand by Politico’s Glenn Thrush, focused on the Obama campaign. The fourth, The End of the Line, focused on the last month of the campaign and was published a month after the election.

If journalism is the first draft of history, the Politico Playbook 2012 series falls somewhere between the first draft and the second.  It lacks the narrative power of, say, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s best-selling Game Change.  But Game Change was published 14 months after the 2008 election; three-fourths of the Playbook 2012 series was published during the 2012 campaign.

The major innovation of the series was its availability on platforms like Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBookstore and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The e-books were inexpensive ($2.99 each on all platforms) and short without being insubstantial (50-60 book pages each). The quality of the reporting — the access, insight, scope, buzz-worthiness, etc. — is what you would expect from experienced campaign reporters like Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin, though they were not alone in taking a long-form approach to covering the campaign.

The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza produced a thoughtful and timely body of campaign reportage that included several longform pieces and an illuminating piece two weeks after the election that has been uncannily prescient on the Republican Party’s often conflicting efforts to make inroads with a growing Latino population by tackling immigration reform. John Heilemann’s May 2012 New York magazine piece about the Obama team’s framing of the campaign and Michael Lewis’s October 2012 profile of President Obama for Vanity Fair were important, agenda-setting pieces that were little different than short e-books in their length and scope.

A handful of other influential e-books were published during and immediately after the 2012 campaign, including Mother Jones reporter David Corn’s Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner Cantor and the Tea Party in March 2012 and 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings (who died tragically a few days ago in an automobile accident) published one of the first lengthy accounts of the Obama campaign, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign, in January.

The Playbook 2012 series is a breezy, fly-on-the-wall, real-time reporter’s notebook.  Campaign insiders retell and analyze events that we all watched in real-time — the stump speeches, the ads, the debates, and election night.  It is not a definitive history of the election and does not purport to be, but two themes do emerge: Obama’s early success in defining Romney and the Romney campaign’s certainty to the last minute that they were going to win.

The Obama campaign started running battleground-state ads against Romney as soon as the Republican primary ended in May.  By branding Romney so early and with so much available bandwidth to get the message out before voters were sick of campaign ads, the Obama camp established Romney’s brand before Romney could do so himself.

The Romney brand?  Shortly after the election, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour described the Obama team’s take on Romney as aptly as I’ve seen in The End of the Line:  “This was all personal: that Romney is a vulture capitalist who doesn’t care about people like you, ships jobs overseas, is a quintessential plutocrat, and is married to a known equestrian.”  Exactly.

Thrush and Martin describe Romney’s now-infamous 2008 “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed in the New York Times  as “the major impediment to seriously challenging Obama in the industrial Midwest — especially in Ohio” and as the impetus for Romney’s disastrous late-October TV ad that accused Obama of moving Chrysler jobs to China that drew a sharp, public rebuke from Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

All of the interviews for The End of the Line were conducted either after the election or before but with the understanding that the story would not be published until after the election, so it provides one of the earliest glimpses of the big moments of the campaign with the first layer of spin peeled away.  What emerges is a bizarre dual reality — both campaigns getting increasing confident of victory the closer they got to election day.

One of the campaigns, of course, turned out to be delusional and fantastically wrong — blindly relying on voter-turnout models that reality would not later bear out.

“I totally believed we were going to win,” Romney finance chief Spencer Zwick told the authors, “and I think everyone around [Romney] believed we were going to win.  If anyone tells you that they knew we weren’t going to win, I think they’re lying to you.”

Weeks before The End of the Line was published, I had read Politico and The New Republic‘s stories about the Romney camp’s election-night optimism. Still, it was jarring to see the conviction in Romney pollster Neil Newhouse the day before the election as he predicted wins in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire — not in a booster-ish public statement but in a private, all-caps email to the Romney campaign senior staff.

The End of the Line’s real value is in the never-before-published personal anecdotes:  Obama driving Robert Gibbs’ Chevy Volt around the White House parking lot.  White House press secretary Jay Carney doing the “Gangnam Style” dance.  Obama getting drilled in mock debate after mock debate by Sen. John Kerry and then by Romney in the actual first debate.

The e-book shifts between the two campaigns, but the Obama story is a better read.  It’s hard to tell if that’s because Obama’s was the more interesting of the two campaigns to cover, or if the reporters simply had better access to the Obama staffers than to the Romney staffers.

I suspect it’s both.  The bulk of the the reporting on the Romney campaign showed it to be a corporate outfit with a small group of decision-makers.  And there’s no evidence that two of the more significant campaign figures — Romney’s wife Ann and oldest son Tagg — gave interviews to the authors.

Ultimately, The End of the Line is what it is — a $2.99, two-hour, behind-the-scenes read that casts some new reporting into the well of coverage of the 2012 campaign at a time when books like Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (published earlier this month) is just joining the conversation and Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s  Double Down: Game Change 2012 (coming November) is still a ways off.

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