Interview With the Author
The 2008 presidential campaign probably got more attention than any campaign in modern history. There will be dozens of books written about the Barack Obama victory. So why read Destiny Calling?
I have been covering presidential campaigns on and off for some 40 years, so I know all about conventional approaches to campaign coverage. I had no interest in being enmeshed in the daily grind of campaigning, or trapped in some bus or on a campaign plane. What you get there is what people want you to have, and that includes the food. I wanted to come at the election from an approach that had two important elements at its heart: I wanted to respect the people I talked to, and I wanted to tell a story that is bigger than one about a campaign, even a campaign as important as President Obama’s. Presidential campaigns are always about America, but America is rarely covered as part of the process.
How did you do that?
First, I avoided any of the traditional coverage pathways and crafted a campaign course of my own that would focus on individual voters and circumstances instead of the daily rhetoric and hopping around that makes no great sense at any given point. I wanted to identify why people were making their decisions, how they were making them, and what the impact of those decisions would be. So instead of racing after a campaign, I developed a long list of individuals I wanted to talk to about how they made their political decisions, then I made my arrangements and went to visit them as the campaign was playing out. I was really completely out of the way and tucked away in some most interesting corners of the United States (and in one case, Moscow too).
How did you find Carmen Dedeaux?
Carmen lives in Pass Christian, Miss., and she may be the most important voter in the book because her story is so full of passion, loss, and redemption. I don’t use those terms lightly. She saw her home and the homes of her family swept away by Hurricane Katrina and then got precious little help from the federal government when she needed it the most. It was the Mennonite volunteers and Southern Baptists who rebuilt her life, and she tells that story in touching and heartening detail. Her experience with Katrina soured her (just as it soured a lot of people) on the Bush administration and Republican politics. All she wanted was some help, and no one in government could give it to her. She wasn’t sure about Obama in the beginning, but she followed his every move, broke her bond with the Clinton family, which had been deep and dependable, and went for the Chicagoan. She tells that story particularly well in Destiny Calling, right down to explaining what it is like to feel God has abandoned you.
We were all surprised by what happened to the War in Iraq as a campaign issue. It just seemed to disappear from the charges midway through the campaign. How did that happen?
That’s probably what people thought who were looking at conventional polling measures of the campaign. I found a revealing voter in Col. Edwin Chamberlain III, whose family’s military experience stretches all the way back to Black Jack Pershing and the pursuit of Pancho Villa. Those are deep roots. Chamberlain, whose story is at the heart of a chapter in Destiny Calling, was one of the heroes of the first Gulf War, having captured some 1,400 Iraqis in a firefight in the desert. But he is a man who hates war, and who hated President Bush’s war in Iraq in particular. Here was a lifelong Republican who gave it all up to vote for Obama solely because Obama promised he would bring the troops home from Iraq. His own story, and the story of soliders and what they lose in war, explains everything you need to know about why so many military people were able to vote Democratic in the 2008 campaign.
There were so many things about this campaign that were different. How did you know how to sort them out and give them some context?
I believe I did in Destiny Calling exactly what a campaign manager would do. I looked closely at who voted the last time and measured what would be available this time around. If you looked at it that way, and the Obama people did, then you knew right away that there were loads of delegates for the picking in states no one was paying attention to (and that’s how he beat Sen. Clinton, the perceived frontrunner) and loads of voters for the general election among people who were between the ages of 18 and, say, 29. What is unusual about this measure is that I presented it in Moscow, where I was lecturing on American politics. That chapter is full of information that is all but secret to the rank and file, the specific details on who votes and why. There is no small irony in the fact that the people who benefit most from being in the U.S. are the most dependable voters, and that those who face hard times, until Obama came along, were least likely to cast votes.
You paid a lot of attention to Pennsylvania and North Carolina in Destiny Calling. How did you know they were going to be important on election day?
I didn’t, but the campaigns did. I felt obliged to look closely at Pennsylvania because of the role it played in the primaries, where Obama lost by 11 points or so but still managed to pick up significant white votes in counties where you would never expect to find them. North Carolina was a good choice for two reasons, the first being Maria Smithson and the second being its election-day role. That place had been solidly in the Republican campaign for many an election cycle, but Obama was not only able to overcome Clinton’s natural advantage in the primary, he was able to unleash an army of volunteers and grab one of the most significant state victories on election day. To my mind, putting those two states together tells you all you need to know about how far the Obama campaign came in a short period of time. Smithson, a political expert who was running a congressional campaign, fleshes it all out with her assessment of the Obama crew. She bought the beer for the election night celebration!
How did money become so important in this campaign?
It’s always important. This time it was important because the Obama campaign found a new way to raise it. This may be the most significant development in election 2008, the capacity for using technology to raise the tens of millions of dollars Obama collected as election day approached. Destiny Calling tells readers how and why that happened, and why technology is the most important new arrival to the political process. Obama’s people amassed an army of volunteers with cellphones and websites alone. Angela Inzano and her boyfriend were among them, and they talk about how the process worked on election day. Inzano, working at Loyola University in Chicago, spent the entire day on the phone to Pennsylvania, urging everyone she could find to vote for Obama.
How did you approach the vice-presidential choice of Sarah Palin. Was she the deal sealer for the Democrats?
I spent a good deal of time looking for Republicans who could tell me what the problem was with John McCain, and I found some strong characters who explained it very well. Ann Marie Banfield in New Hampshire was swept away by the Sarah Palin selection, but she saw McCain as nothing more than a guy who got the nomination because it was his turn. Martin Geraghty, a veteran Chicago real estate man with deep conservative roots, said the Republicans just failed to present a viable candidate. He was hoping for Newt Gingrich, but it was not to be.
Was this election more about the Bush record than the Obama campaign?
Maybe the toughest question of them all, and not one you would find an answer to on a campaign plane. Bush carried the burden of the 9/11 attack, which came after many warnings, the Katrina disaster, an Iraq war constructed on fictions about weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections, and, finally, an economic collapse. Conventional wisdom might argue it was Obama’s vision and his rhetorical gifts that carried the day, but there was no doubt that the nation was deeply ready for a change. By the time election day rolled around, more than 70 percent of the people thought the nation was on the wrong track. That is dry tinder in the political process, and Obama was not shy about sending sparks all over the place to set his campaign on fire.