Best American Political Writing 2008


Edited by Royce Flippin

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The Best American Political Writing 2008 draws from a variety of publications and political viewpoints to present the year’s most insightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking pieces on the current political scene. This year’s edition will include full coverage of the presidential candidates and conventions, and will offer incisive reporting on America’s most pressing political concerns — from the threat of a looming economic recession, to the continued struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Selections will include Jane Mayer’s investigation of the various highly coercive interrogation techniques routinely employed by the CIA and the Pentagon, Jonathan Chait’s report on how radical economic extremists have hijacked national policy, Andrew Sullivan’s article on “Why Barack Obama Matters,” George Packer’s analysis of the contrasting appeals of Obama and Hillary Clinton, Parag Khanna on America’s struggle to retain its status as the world’s great superpower, and John Judis’s essay on how politicians wield power by tapping into our deepest anxieties, from such publications as The New Yorker, The New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and Vanity Fair.


The Reagan and Clinton icons of their respective parties
were in plain sight early on and, it seemed, ready to
do battle. (Illustration by Steve Brodner;
first appeared in
The New Yorker.)

This book is dedicated to Alexis, Maisie, and Bailey

Todd S. Purdum
The United States is ensnared in a grim and seemingly unwinnable war half a world away. Domestic political passions run high. Accusations of un-Americanism are recklessly hurled about, even as civil liberties and constitutional protections are casually abraded. One of the most fascinating presidential campaigns in years pits a first-term statewide officeholder from Illinois (who writes his own speeches) against a bona-fide war hero (who accumulated more than his share of demerits and did not distinguish himself in his military academy class). Both have a reputation for uncommon rectitude, and the fall election will test whether either can win without proving he is unworthy of winning, as a wise (but losing) politician once put it.
That politician was Adlai E. Stevenson, who, fifty-six years ago this fall, as the first-term governor of Illinois, took on Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander who saved the civilized world from Hitler, for the right to succeed Harry Truman. Their 1952 election battle was the last time in American history that the race for the White House was as wide open as it has been this year—with no incumbent president or vice president on either party’s ticket—and the parallels between their contest and the fight of Barack Obama against John McCain are eerily obvious: the egghead vs. the egg-breaker; the poet vs. the paladin; the fresh face vs. the battle-scarred vet.
But the differences are palpable, too. Stevenson was running with the weight of twenty years of Democratic rule and its accumulated controversies on his shoulders, while McCain is burdened by public distaste for two terms of catastrophic Republican control. Obama has positioned himself as a figure above conventional politics, just as Eisenhower did when he kept both parties guessing for months about whether he was a Republican, a Democrat, or merely a kind of living god. Eisenhower captivated voters with his vague pledge to “go to Korea” (which meant get out of it), while McCain, who shares some of Ike’s bipartisan patina, has vowed to stay in Iraq for years, if that’s what it takes.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will be more like Stevenson, a pure and noble loser, or John F. Kennedy, a cool cat who went to school on Stevenson’s mistakes. And it remains to be seen whether McCain, whose undaunted courage in the Hanoi Hilton left his body badly broken (and who would be two years older if and when he takes office than Ike was when he left it), will be more like the rise-above-it-all Eisenhower or Ike’s fellow Kansan Bob Dole, who nearly lost his life as a lieutenant in Italy in World War II but seemed too damned old and cranky to wrest the presidency from that glandular phenomenon, Bill Clinton, in 1996.
Hovering over the whole scene is another figure: a pioneering First Lady who went on to an outstanding public career in her own right, winning a huge place in the hearts of many of her fellow Democrats. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton long ago rose above her husband’s infidelity to make something finer for herself, and like E.R. in 1960, H.R.C. has worried this year that her party’s bright young standard-bearer is not quite up to the job. But Senator Clinton’s very presence on the national stage is proof of the limits of this historical ramble’s relevance to current events: It was not so long ago that the prospect of a white woman (or a black man) becoming the Democratic presidential nominee was quite unthinkable.
In each presidential election cycle, it has become a cliché (or at least a truism) to say that something or other is “unprecedented.” Inflation alone all but guarantees that the next election will be more expensive than the one before it; the steady breakdown of party discipline has meant that primary voters (and television news directors) have gained more and more influence over a more and more diffuse process; the rise of a 24/7 media culture has elevated trivialities to the level of great debates; and a process that once took only a few months between the parties’ conventions and the general election (or eight or nine months when the primaries began in February and March) now takes the better part of two full years, if not more.
Still, as the range of provocative and insightful pieces in this anthology suggests, it seems all but certain that historians will regard the 2008 election as singular. The sheer amount of money raised by the leading candidates ($1 million a day by Barack Obama, routinely, for weeks on end), the vast size of Obama’s crowds, and the intensity of the Democratic nomination fight are all a testament to the Internet’s extraordinary (and, yes, unprecedented) power as a fundraising, organizing, energizing tool. More than at any time in my twenty-five years of covering politics—and my nearly fifty years of living—there is really something new under the sun.
Precisely what this year of extraordinary possibilities will produce—in Washington, or the world—is another question. For all the bitter debates of McCarthyism, the 1952 election actually produced remarkable consensus on activist government at home and internationalist government abroad: Eisenhower accepted the legacies of the New Deal and the Marshall Plan in the face of the global foe of communism. Just four years ago, President Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, was predicting that his reelection presaged a permanent Republican realignment. If that now seems far from likely, so does a great new day of Democratic dominance. Muddling through may be the new normal.
Neither Obama nor McCain is conventionally partisan, and each has made his name in part by railing against the destructiveness and absurdity of much of what passes for modern politics. But even in the early going, their matchup showed signs of producing conventional partisan squabbles. Would either stand much of a chance of changing the entrenched ways of Washington, the power of the special-interest money they both purport to despise, or the threat of global terrorism that they view so differently? The country may be united in opposition to George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq and elsewhere, but by most other conventional measures, voters remain closely divided. McCain would doubtless face a hostile Democratic Congress, and Obama would have nothing like the large working majorities that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed in their prime.
What does seem clear enough is that this election will be a pivot point, a chance for the United States to recalibrate itself, and the world’s image of it, in the face of rapidly evolving circumstances. Obama would be the fourth youngest president in our history, and McCain the very oldest, but as political personalities, either would be a decided contrast to the incumbent Decider the world has come to know so well. McCain may be Hemingway and Obama Fitzgerald, but both see the world with something of the writer’s eye. Both have compelling personal narratives that reinforce and amplify their policy approaches, whether McCain’s muscular nationalism and Teddy Roosevelt-style grit or Obama’s promise of a new kind of politics in which small victories make big differences and aspiration is its own reward.
As Drew Westen reminds us in the insightful excerpt from his book, The Political Brain (page 111), politics has always been, at heart, a matter of story-telling, and voters embrace (or reject) politicians more with their hearts than with their heads. Ronald Reagan knew this instinctively, and Adlai Stevenson understood it all too well. When told at one point in his 1956 campaign that “every thinking person” in the country was for him, he replied, “That’s not enough. . . . We need a majority!” From George Washington on, we have disproportionately loved our leaders, as Desdemona loved Othello, for the dangers they have passed, the obstacles they have overcome, and the dragons they set out to slay on our behalf, far more than for the ten-point plans they have promised. Our current system of selecting them may well be inhumane, inelegant, and far too prolonged, and it may provide only limited guidance about the candidates’ capacity for governing. But it is the system we have made, so perhaps we deserve it.
The pieces in the pages that follow describe the state of that system, and tell the stories of the combatants, from the middle-distance perspective between current events and history that magazine writing is uniquely suited to provide. In a world full of more and more (and more unreliable) opinion masquerading as fact, and of sometimes mindless accumulation of fact substituting for meaning, the profiles, narratives, essays, and analyses gathered here offer a welcome degree of reflection. They capture the moment in which they were published, yet they already seem well positioned to stand the test of time. They plumb personality, explore technology, assay economics, and detail grave mistakes.
Perhaps more than anything, this election year, and this collection, reify that hoariest shibboleth of the national creed: that in America, any boy (or girl) can grow up to be president, and, to paraphrase Stevenson, that’s just one of the risks we take.

Royce Flippin
The eve of the 2008 presidential election offers up a scene worthy of a Hollywood screenwriter’s imagination: a lame-duck, widely unpopular Republican president limping to the end of his second term, and a wide-open race to succeed him featuring a Vietnam War hero, a first-term African American senator, and the only First Lady ever to run for the White House. The backdrop? A pugnacious but largely impotent Democratic majority in the House and Senate, the seemingly interminable armed struggle to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into working democracies, a faltering U.S. economy, and the nagging sense that Al Qaeda and its allies are still actively plotting violence against America. Something’s gotta give. Change is in the air—though just what it will bring remains to be seen.
The current national mood of uncertainty, frustration, and hunger for a new direction (the most recent Gallup Poll found an unprecedented 77 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track) is the raw material for the selections in Best American Political Writing 2008. It isn’t surprising then that this year’s edition is largely divided between analysis of how our country has gone astray and investigations into how we are scrambling toward what we hope will be a brighter future.
The coverage of this cataclysmic year is headed up by “The Race,” a collection of articles devoted to the bruising primary battles for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters” is a fascinating rumination on Barack Obama’s importance as the nation’s first presidential candidate born after 1960. Chris Jones’s intimate two-part profile of John McCain’s ascension to the Republican nomination follows, before the spotlight shifts to Hillary Clinton with Amanda Fortini’s essay on how her candidacy, and the hostility it’s generated, has reinvigorated America’s feminist movement. The three subsequent pieces report directly from the campaign trail, as George Packer surveys “The Choice” between Obama and Clinton, Tim Dickinson writes about Obama’s unprecedented grassroots campaign organization, and veteran political scribe Ryan Lizza captures the fierce determination of Hillary Clinton in “The Iron Lady.” In conclusion, John Heilemann’s thought-provoking article examines how the general election contest between McCain and Obama is likely to shape up (“Is John McCain Bob Dole?”), and Rick Perlstein takes a wry look at the right-wing punditry’s belated embrace of McCain as the GOP nominee (“All Aboard the McCain Express”).
“Who We Are Now” veers from the campaign trail to offer a varied selection of political perspectives. Beginning with psychologist Drew Westen, author of the assumption-shattering best-seller The Political Brain, we learn just how the leading presidential candidates have attempted to bond emotionally with the American public. Jennifer Senior examines why political candidates are better off hiding their true personalities, famed playwright David Mamet explains why he no longer considers himself a liberal, and professor and feminist author Linda Hirshman offers up a provocative analysis of female voting patterns. Rounding out the section are profiles of two diametrically opposed governor-ships, with David Margolick’s cautionary article on Eliot Spitzer’s brief and troubled tenure as New York’s chief executive, published just weeks before he was forced to step down, and Tom Junod’s rollicking account of how California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger retooled his gubernatorial approach and roared his way to reelection. In closing, technology writer Clive Thompson educates us on just how hard it is to find a reliable vote-counting machine.
In “So Long, Buckaroo,” contributors explore the uncertain legacy of soon-to-be-ex-president George W. Bush. Todd S. Purdum examines Bush’s life inside the White House bubble, while Jonathan Chait and economist Joseph E. Stiglitz offer a two-pronged assessment of the Bush economic program’s failings in their respective pieces. Joshua Green closes with a shrewd analysis of why Bush’s campaign guru Karl Rove is brilliant at winning elections, but less ingenious at running a government.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About War” concentrates on American foreign policy, with a particular focus on the conflict in Iraq. Jon Lee Anderson’s “Inside the Surge” is an eyewitness account of how the recent buildup of U.S. troop strength in Iraq is playing out on the streets of Baghdad, while former Bush adviser Peter D. Feaver’s “Anatomy of the Surge” provides an illuminating view of what the Iraq occupation looks like from inside the Administration. “The History Boys,” one of the last pieces written by the late David Halberstam, pokes big holes in the Bush administration’s efforts to compare George W. Bush with Harry S. Truman, another president who left office with dismal approval ratings. In “After Musharraf,” foreign correspondent Joshua Hammer travels to Pakistan to assess President Pervez Musharraf’s prospects of continuing as leader of that strategically important nation. “The Black Sites,” by Jane Mayer, is a chilling investigation of the C.I.A.’s tactics inside its secret prisons, while “Euphemism and American Violence,” by literature professor David Bromwich, challenges us to rethink the political implications of the words we use to describe our world.
This is the seventh edition of Best American Political Writing to see print—a series whose tenure has coincided exactly with that of George W. Bush’s presidency. Next year, at long last, there will be someone else in the Oval Office to kick around. Change is in the air, and it’s bracing. But no matter who the next man in the White House is, American troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. economy will likely still be sputtering, Osama bin Laden will quite probably still be at large somewhere in western Pakistan, and the Senate Democrats will almost certainly remain a few seats shy of a filibuster-proof majority. You can’t have everything—and if you could, what would be left to write about?

A takeoff on the famous painting by George
Bellows, this time with Clinton and Obama in
the ring. McCain is ringside taking notes.
(Illustration by Steve Brodner; first
appeared in
The New Yorker.)

The Atlantic Monthly December 2007
As this book went to press in June 2008, the seemingly endless Democratic primary season had at last drawn to a close, with Barack Obama finally nailing down the presidential nomination. But there was nothing easy about his victory: Having piled up an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates with his string of wins midway through the process, Obama had to then outwait a series of survival maneuvers by Hillary Clinton—which included pressing to take account of the delegations from the contested Michigan and Florida primaries (both states had been “desanctioned” as punishment for moving up their primary dates in defiance of party rules, and the Democratic National Committee eventually decided to allocate a half-vote per delegate in each state) and making the case that she had “won” the popular vote (true, if you count her 328,000 to zero victory over Obama in Michigan, where his name didn’t appear on the ballot).
Clinton’s stubborn refusal to quit was in part a nod to her many fervent supporters, but to some, it also seemed to reflect her campaign’s sense of disbelief that her “inevitable” path to the nomination had been blocked by such an unlikely (and unforeseen) adversary. In his Atlantic Monthly article—which appeared before the first primary vote had been cast—Andrew Sullivan put a twist on the argument of so-called inevitability by noting that whatever historical forces might be at work in this election, Obama stands to benefit most from them. Born in the 1960s, he’s grown up largely free of the lingering tensions spawned by that troubled decade. And if the nation is finally ready to bid adieu to the politics of the Vietnam era, as Sullivan—who’s written extensively about religion and culture in American political life—believes, then Obama is the natural choice to lead the way.
The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics. It has little to do with Obama’s considerable skills as a conciliator, legislator, or even thinker. It has even less to do with his ideological pedigree or legal background or rhetorical skills. Yes, as the many profiles prove, he has considerable intelligence and not a little guile. But so do others, not least his formidably polished and practiced opponent Senator Hillary Clinton.
Obama, moreover, is no saint. He has flaws and tics: Often tired, sometimes crabby, intermittently solipsistic, he’s a surprisingly uneven campaigner. A soaring rhetorical flourish one day is undercut by a lackluster debate performance the next. He is certainly not without self-regard. He has more experience in public life than his opponents want to acknowledge, but he has not spent much time in Washington and has never run a business. His lean physique, close-cropped hair, and stick-out ears can give the impression of a slightly pushy undergraduate. You can see why many of his friends and admirers have urged him to wait his turn. He could be president in five or nine years’ time—why the rush?
But he knows, and privately acknowledges, that the fundamental point of his candidacy is that it is happening now. In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.
Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.
The traces of our long journey to this juncture can be found all around us. Its most obvious manifestation is political rhetoric. The high temperature—Bill O’Reilly’s nightly screeds against anti-Americans on one channel, Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” on the other;’s “General Betray Us” on the one side, Ann Coulter’s Treason on the other; Michael Moore’s accusation of treason at the core of the Iraq War, Sean Hannity’s assertion of treason in the opposition to it—is particularly striking when you examine the generally minor policy choices on the table. Something deeper and more powerful than the actual decisions we face is driving the tone of the debate.
Take the biggest foreign-policy question—the war in Iraq. The rhetoric ranges from John McCain’s “No Surrender” banner to the “End the War Now” absolutism of much of the Democratic base. Yet the substantive issue is almost comically removed from this hyperventilation. Every potential president, Republican or Democrat, would likely inherit more than 100,000 occupying troops in January 2009; every one would be attempting to redeploy them as prudently as possible and to build stronger alliances both in the region and in the world. Every major candidate, moreover, will pledge to use targeted military force against Al Qaeda if necessary; every one is committed to ensuring that Iran will not have a nuclear bomb; every one is committed to an openended deployment in Afghanistan and an unbending alliance with Israel. We are fighting over something, to be sure. But it is more a fight over how we define ourselves and over long-term goals than over what is practically to be done on the ground.
On domestic policy, the primary issue is health care. Again, the ferocious rhetoric belies the mundane reality. Between the boogeyman of “Big Government” and the alleged threat of the drug companies, the practical differences are more matters of nuance than ideology. Yes, there are policy disagreements, but in the wake of the Bush administration, they are underwhelming. Most Republicans support continuing the Medicare drug benefit for seniors, the largest expansion of the entitlement state since Lyndon Johnson, while Democrats are merely favoring more cost controls on drug and insurance companies. Between Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan—individual mandates, private-sector leadership—and Senator Clinton’s triangulated update of her 1994 debacle, the difference is more technical than fundamental. The country has moved ever so slightly leftward. But this again is less a function of ideological transformation than of the current system’s failure to provide affordable health care for the insured or any care at all for growing numbers of the working poor.
Even on issues that are seen as integral to the polarization, the practical stakes in this election are minor. A large consensus in America favors legal abortions during the first trimester and varying restrictions thereafter. Even in solidly red states, such as South Dakota, the support for total criminalization is weak. If Roe were to fall, the primary impact would be the end of a system more liberal than any in Europe in favor of one more in sync with the varied views that exist across this country. On marriage, the battles in the states are subsiding, as a bevy of blue states adopt either civil marriage or civil unions for gay couples, and the rest stand pat. Most states that want no recognition for same-sex couples have already made that decision, usually through state constitutional amendments that allow change only with extreme difficulty. And the one state where marriage equality exists, Massachusetts, has decided to maintain the reform indefinitely.
Given this quiet, evolving consensus on policy, how do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics? The answer lies mainly with the biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers. The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.


On Sale
Oct 20, 2008
Page Count
400 pages