Race (And Read) Of A Lifetime

Race of a LifetimeI’d normally say that a reader’s awareness of how clever writers are and how many eloquent, too-clever words they use is a sign of the writers trying too hard and of their pomposity. But nothing’s further from that truth with John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House. In fact, the only reason I noticed their extensive and impressive vocabulary was because it was so simply used, and so many less-common, but no-less-beautiful words were slotted in so effortlessly and eloquently into the pages of this 430-ish page book.

I found myself dog-earing pages and making mental notes to find a way to use such words. Of course, they all escape me now, but having read this mighty book, I’m all too conscious of my apparently limited writing and speaking vocabulary.

The writers employing such words are of the accomplished New York magazine and Time, respectively, with such other publication notches to their names as the New Yorker, the Economist, Wired, and ABC News. I know that years of writing for these esteemed publications has honed their craft and extended their knowledge, with words gathering to them like magnets over time. But it’s also their turn of phrase—simple, direct, active, keenly observed that makes the words, grouped together, so powerful.

Race of a Lifetime was recommended to me by one of my best friends—someone who knows how voraciously I read and who doesn’t often feel comfortable pointing me in the direction of books. The glowing endorsement she gave combined with the intriguing concept of the book told me I absolutely had to read it.

The culmination of hundreds of interviews with key players—both on and off the record—and filled with inside information that can only be obtained through long-held and strongly-forged professional relationships, Race of a Lifetime is perhaps the most comprehensive and most compelling look at the race between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and a host of other players such as John Edwards.

It’s fast-paced and thrilling, with Heilemann and Halperin making you feel as though you’re not only inside the room, you’re inside the players’ heads. Having read it voraciously for three days straight, including on a notoriously attention-sapping long-haul plane ride, I can hand-on-my-heart say (fitting given it’s a book that looks largely at American patriotism and precisely what it takes to commit yourself wholly to a process and country to win a game-changing presidential race) that Race of a Lifetime is stellar. And I say that as someone who’s not overly interested in (and who is incredibly frustrated by) politics and the guff that goes around it.

Heilemann and Halperin convey the tension, the emotion, and the details of the history-making pre-selection and presidential candidature process that saw the USA recently elect its first African American president. The campaign was long, arduous, and at times funny, and I feel as though I know Obama, the Clintons, McCain, and Palin more intimately and more truthfully than ever before.

The bulk of the book’s content concentrates on the at-times-vicious race for Democratic party endorsement between Obama and Clinton, as well as Bill’s at-times-crazy contributions to it.  The latter third of the book introduces McCain and the woman who was both fascinating and like watching an only-in-America train wreck: gun-toting former beauty queen Palin. The examinations of each candidate aren’t always flattering—in fact, I do wonder if they’re these days trying to work out who leaked what to whom and when—but are simultaneously humanising and intriguing.

We see just how difficult, extensive, and hard-fought the battle was between Obama and Clinton—leading me to marvel at the kind of miracle that either of them made it over the line still standing in spite of their exhaustion. We understand the complexity of the media-drenched, fundraising-driven process that appears, to largely disinterested and objective outside observers like me, quite befuddling. And of course, we catch a glimpse of an answer into what McCain was thinking in selecting the off-the-wall Palin as his running mate. I could tell you, but that would ruin it for you. Instead I’ll simply say you should definitely read Race of a Lifetime to find out for yourself. It may have been the race of a lifetime. I’d say it’s the read of one too.

In-Flight (Almost No-Flight) Entertainment

Race of a LifetimeThis blog comes to you a little late and from halfway around the world. I’m in South America, despite the, er, best efforts of the Brazilian Consulate-General. It appears that the BCG has a policy of not acknowledging whether they’ve received your visa application and passport, not telling you where your visa application is at, and not telling you if or when they post it. Seriously.

I’d spent the Friday morning on the phone to both my travel agent and travel insurers establishing that although it wasn’t my fault the visa hadn’t arrived in time, I wasn’t covered for such an issue and would be required to cough up some serious moolah to change my flights. The BCG then called at 1pm to say they had a visa for me but couldn’t post it as, clearly, it wouldn’t arrive before my Sunday morning departure. Oh, and they couldn’t give me the media visa that I needed but had issued something temporary that explicitly said ‘not for work’ and that appeared to cost the same amount as a media visa.

Suffice to say that, having been trying to contact them for over a week by phone and email without receiving anything except automated we-won’t-tell-you-anything messages, I said something along the lines of ‘What good is it calling me at 1pm from an entirely different city on the last business day before I leave?’ With perhaps a couple of not-so-polite words thrown in.

Their response was a presumptuous, snooty, ‘Don’t you know anyone in Sydney who can drive in to the middle of the city at a moment’s notice to collect a visa and passport?’ And yes, the irony that they wouldn’t tell me anything over the phone or email about my application’s status, but were more than willing to hand my passport and visa over to a random stranger wasn’t lost on me.

Fortunately, through the incredible power of friends and Facebook, I managed to contact a friend who was driving back to Sydney from Canberra and who had a half-hour window to collect them. I then found another friend who was in Sydney at a conference and couriered the passport and visa to him as he was flying back to Brisbane on the last flight out of Sydney on the Saturday night. Receiving them at 10.30pm on the Saturday night for a 9am departure on Sunday was undoubtedly going to be cutting it fine, but my only other option was to fly to Sydney myself to collect them, and as I had other commitments not even in Brisbane right up until I left, I didn’t have time.

The Boy In The MoonOf course, the story wouldn’t be replete without a final twist. There was a loud bang on my friend’s plane that resulted in it being turned back to Sydney. The airline had to find another plane, unload and reload baggage, and ignore the Sydney flying curfew to arrive in Brisbane after midnight. Cold sweat? Heck yes. But the relief when I got that little book and its accompanying piece of paper? Priceless.

The reason I tell this story is that it’s times like this, when you’re thwarted by bureaucracy and bizarreness, that there’s nothing quite like the salvation of retreating into the world of a good book. The urge to turn off the phone and intermanet, pull the covers up, and crack the spine of one of the many, many books piled up on my mantle was enormous. In fact, what kept me together and even laughing for most of the ordeal was the knowledge that once I got onto the plane, I had nothing but about 15 hours of uninterrupted reading time.

My book of choice was something I’d agonised over almost as much as the visa—I’d had to pare back my pile of books to take overseas from 31 to just two. I’d then had to nominate one to take on board and one to stow in my luggage, which required almost as much effort again. In the end for in-flight reading I opted for the tale of the USA presidential candidate, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House. It’s by the esteemed John Heilemann and Mark Halperin of New York magazine and Time respectively, two journalists who could hardly be more experienced or better placed to capture and interpret the events of the past few years.

My stow-away book was Ian Brown’s The Boy In The Moon, which I’ve discussed previously on this blog. The reason that finally swayed me towards Race of a Lifetime over The Boy in the Moon was simply because I think the latter is going to make me cry and no one wants to sob in public for 15 hours straight. I’m over halfway through the Obama book and can safely say it’s fabulous and was a fabulous choice for in-flight entertainment. Full review soon to follow.