Sunday 18 February 2018

the book that prepared me for the white house

How I was sucked into the very heart of the 2008 presidential campaign

In between reading books for my radio show, I try to pick up the occasional tome for my personal reading pleasure. Having spent the past 12 months trying to write a book in between presenting a radio and television show and living a "normal" life, the opportunity has rarely arisen.

When the chance did come my way recently, I allowed myself maybe 50 pages. If the book was doing nothing for me, I'd leave it down and try something else. Fortunately for me, a smart man in Penguin Ireland sent me a book that he promised would not let me down. I plucked Race for the White House from the brown envelope on my desk and took it home with me later that day.

By the time I got home, had dinner, watched an episode of The West Wing and headed for bed, I presumed I'd be too tired to read but I hadn't counted on just how utterly engaging the book was going to be.

From the very first paragraph, Race for the White House (or Game Changer as it is called in the States) sucks you right into the heart of the 2008 American Presidential campaign.

Like a brilliant newspaper article in a good Sunday paper that reviews the political week, this book gives every detail of the campaign down to the last paperclip and email.

It focuses on the main contenders for the Democrats (Obama and Clinton) and the Republicans (McCain, Romney, Giuliani et al) and in the latter part of the book, the spotlight moves to the vice-presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

It's only when two colourful journalists like Mark Halperin and John Heilemann get their hands on the background material that an ordinary story of a political campaign becomes a breathtaking rollercoaster that constantly threatens to come off the rails but keeps you on every page for every chapter, all the way through to the exhilarating end.

The book gives us an insight into the contenders that was never apparent when the race was happening. Obama's sangfroid belies the charming orator that the press fell over head in love with. McCain's crazy lack of economic knowledge and peculiar relationship with his statuesque wife, Cindy, is dealt with brilliantly. And Biden's foot-in-mouth problems and the Obama camp's attempt to eradicate same makes for fun reading.

The anti-star of the show is Sarah Palin, whose appearance from just beyond left-field provides the most outrageous moments in a book liberally peppered with outrageous moments. Palin's initial excitement and wide-eyed amazement at her own emergence from Alaskan obscurity is swiftly replaced by a hard, cruel land to earth as McCain's "people" present their candidate with pile after pile of flash cards with bits of foreign policy written on each one

The tragi-comedy is complete when a tired and drawn Palin is seen slumped in her chair as an adviser presents the same card over and over in an attempt to get her to learn how to say the word "nuclear" properly.

The level of detail is like nothing I've ever seen before, to the point that I don't know how the authors managed to interview so many flies on so few walls; but clearly the axe-grinding business was booming in the months that followed Obama's election.

People from all camps felt comfortable enough with the journalists to spill the beans on the bitching and sniping that permeated all sides throughout.

The descriptions of political and personal tensions that characterise campaigns like this are second to none and while they don't have the stentorious tones of a Theodore White, they have all the panache of the best colour writing in the early 20th Century.

Having feasted on this book for a couple of weeks and recommended it to anyone with even a passing interest in the machinations of modern politics, it was a pleasure to be invited to the White House for a Patrick's Day shindig.

I had been there two years ago when George W Bush was president. I didn't meet the man but I will never forget the whiff of power that wafted from the pillars in front of that iconic building on a bright Spring morning in 2008. By sheer chance, I found myself alone on the front porch as the presidential motorcade prepared to take off for Capitol Hill. There are around 20 vehicles in the line-up, which includes a couple of stretch limos, lots of police cars and a heap of people carriers.

As I stood there in awe, a window lowered in one of the people carriers and the North's Deputy First Minister stuck his head out and asked me how I was. Having not met him before but knowing full well who he was, I walked over and had a chat (he watched Tubridy Tonight with his wife before turning over to Match of the Day, he told me).

Within minutes, I was approached by a Secret Service, who told me to either get into the car or go back inside. At this point, Martin McGuinness opened the door, hooshed up on the seat and told me to hop in. I did and two minutes later the sirens started and I was part of the presidential motorcade all the way to Capitol Hill. I can't go into too much detail but I managed to extricate myself from this bizarre scenario without having to don an orange jumpsuit.

Last week, it was much more civilised. We met half the Kennedys, Gabriel Byrne, Gerry Adams, Peter Robinson, Padraig Harrington and, once again, Martin McGuinness.

The Taoiseach's wife, Mary Cowen, was elegant and dignified as she stood alongside Michelle Obama, who is more beautiful in "real life".

The speeches were great, the mood was jovial and just as I was about to catch my cab to Dulles International airport, President Obama approached the rope we were standing at. I stuck out my hand, he took it, smiled and with that my Forrest Gump visit was complete. I had won my own little race for the White House and it was as dramatic as the marvellous book that prepared me for the trip.

Irish Independent

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