I recently read Race of Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by Heilemann & Halperin)and got curious about it stacked up against what I regard as one of the finest accounts of a presidential campaign - An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 by Chester, Hodgson & Page.
I have to report that the 1968 account stands up very well on a number of fronts and highlights the limits of the reporting of the 2008 campaign. Race of a Lifetime read on its own terms reads like now. It is focussed on the personalities and the inside gossip about who said what to whom. An American Melodrama has that but has a lot more to offer. It gives background on the issues and the working of the American political process and issues in society that were underpinning the dynamics of the campaign. All this is written fluently and yet with a light touch and a wry sense of humour.
The Race of Lifetime tells us little of any of these things - it is personality centred and deals little with the wider processes and hopes and fear in American society. Politically and socially something significant was at work in the 2008 campaign but we are given few clues and little analysis to help us understand.
There are moments of observation and reflection in An American Melodrama in which some of the characteristics of presidential campaigning that are unreflectively on display in the report of the 2008 campaign are tellingly anticipated. The limitations and narrowness of the way the story of the 2008 campaign is told is reflective of the narrowness and lack of depth in the media coverage of the campaign.
The comparison of the reporting between 1968 and 2008 is revealing and disturbing. I doubt that I will ever go back and read Race of a Lifetime. Going back to reread An American Melodrama this past week was intellectually rewarding and engaging in its narrative drive and literary style.