Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Book Review: Renegade: The Making of a President (2009) by Richard Wolffe.

Barack Obama changed the book Richard Wolffe set out to write.

Wolffe initially wanted to answer the question, "Who is Barack Obama?" (p. 5). According to Wolffe, despite President Obama previously writing "one memoir and one highly personal political treatise" and "debat[ing] two dozen times and deliver[ing] hundreds of speeches...something remained hidden about his character, suppressed about his moods, deep-rooted about his thoughts" that needed to be revealed. (5).

Instead, Obama suggested a story about the campaign, ala Theodore White's classic campaign books. Wolffe's first reaction to this suggestion was amusing: "Teddy White. How archaic. the poor man doesn't understand the media, I thought...." (330.) Wolffe continued: "Two months after our Teddy White conversation, I finally figured out that he might be right." (331.)

As a result, Wolffe has produced a book that is simultaneously both and neither. It's not fully a expose of the campaign (despite Wolffe's considerable access to the candidate and campaign from the outset) and not fully a biography.

Wolffe mostly tries to accomplish his twin aims by examining "a drama of political biography performed on the biggest stage in the world: an outlandish, extraordinary spectacle that veered from inspiration to exasperation, from the mundane to the faintly insane." (5.) However, Wolffe doesn't rely solely on the campaign in telling his story. Instead, he draws heavily from Obama's two books, especially Dreams from My Father (reviewed here on June 4, 2008).

Wolffe never seems to get quite comfortable with his book's title to characterize his subject. "Renegade" was the Secret Service code name for Obama, and Wolffe half-heartedly tries to weave it into his story-telling. Here's an example of Wolffe's noncommittal approach to the characterization: "If Obama was a renegade, he was a cautious and calculating rebel." (25.)

Due to its insider-access, Renegade contains some revealing anecdotes about the campaign and the then-candidate. For example, it might be surprising to some to know that the Rev. Wright controversy had the campaign rattled (and how they tried to handle it). It also was revealing to learn how speeches were crafted--usually at the last minute and involving the candidate himself with his chief speechwriter Jon Favreau (not the actor/director). This emphasis on speechwriting (and delivering) spoke to Wolffe's background as a writer for Newsweek and crowded out other crucial aspects of the campaign.

For example, Wolffe largely ignored the debates (both primary and general election) and inexplicably didn't even mention the widely viewed Saddleback Presidential Forum featuring John McCain and Obama. Also, the book veered occasionally from its stated objectives to take cheap shots at Sen. McCain (especially during a meeting with President Bush about bank bailouts), Gov. Palin, Bush and even Hillary Clinton.

While the book borders on the breathless (e.g. comparing President Obama to Ghandi [135]), especially when it quotes Obama's close friends, it delivers some of "the goods" that political junkies may find satisfying.

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