Renegade, by Richard Wolffe

Reading Renegade, by the Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe, was like a happy skip through the last two years.  It brought back the intense excitement of the Democratic primary season, when I would watch MSNBC for the results from each caucus and primary.  Sometimes I would watch the acceptance/concession speeches with Mike, who would be in Minneapolis, hearing the successive roar from our TVs over our cell phones.  Renegade, if you don’t already know, is the Secret Service code name for Barack Obama, and it is also Wolffe’s favorite means of characterizing Obama in this campaign biography.

Apparently Obama, who is very good at getting what he wants, asked Wolffe to write a book chronicling the campaign, and Wolffe got great access from the very beginning.  A lot of the information is familiar, but certain individuals, like Obama’s friend Marty Nesbitt and campaign manager David Plouffe (very media shy), become prominent figures in the tale.  I’ve read both of Obama’s books (Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope), and Wolffe references them frequently.  But he sheds light on Obama’s college days in ways that Obama didn’t himself — notably, Obama’s friendships with two Pakistani students at Occidental College.  Wolffe reveals that one of them is Sunni and the other is Shia, and Obama was thus able to discern early on the different threads of Islam and even traveled with his friends in Pakistan.  His familiarity with regular, non-elite Pakistanis ends up showing him, in his political career, that depending only on propping up a military regime does not have to be the only way to support a nuclear Pakistan.  It’s interesting to see how Obama actually brings his informal international experiences to bear on his outlook, which I think is more informative than what I’ve read previously.

A favorite comparison is with Michael Jordan — and why not?  Both are Chicagoans, both are basketball players, both are transcendent African-American figures.  But the book suffers from a bit too much repetition (probably a result of quick editing and publishing timetables).  I’ve noticed this in other nonfiction books, where the writer offers up the same information in the book, ostensibly to aid the reader.  To me, at least, it seems like the author or editor doesn’t trust the reader enough to remember the details.  Such repetitions include references to Jordan as an individual player who transitioned to being a team player; two references to Michelle Obama’s “one-bedroom bungalow” home on the South Side of Chicago; and multiple references to Obama as “the renegade” (we get it — it’s the book title!).  I just wish the editor would more carefully scrub the book of redundancies like this, because for a nit-picky reader like me, it is a bit of an annoyance.

The book is definitely favorable to Obama.  I would think that any reporter, after having lots of time and access, would come up with a favorable portrayal of a public figure.  I remember reading a piece in GQ several months back by a staff writer who’d written a book on George W. Bush.  He’d had so many lunches and so much time with Bush that he saw him as a complicated man, and a likable one, rather than the caricature so often portrayed in the media.  So it’s interesting to see Wolffe try to get beyond the cool, distant persona of the public Obama to peel back his decision-making process and his emotions with his family, friends, and close staff.

For an Obamaniac like me, this book was like catnip, and I gobbled it right up.  (Am I mixing metaphors?  I don’t actually know how catnip works.)  Because Wolffe is a journalist, the writing style is pretty quick and breezy, and it is surprisingly focused on the Obama campaign, rather than the ancillary Democratic campaigns or the McCain campaign.  There are discussions of Hillary Clinton in particular, of course, but John McCain and Sarah Palin are almost nonentities.  I guess Wolffe assumes in part that his reader will still remember the election vividly, because all that he is able to offer of the competing campaigns are widely known facts and observations.  (Although it’s delightful to learn that some of the Obama staff referred to McCain as “the old man.”  We talked about his age a lot in our campaign office.)  So what the book lacks in breadth it certainly makes up in depth and focus, which I appreciate.

Any other intriguing surprises?  Obama is a procrastinator when writing and editing speeches.  Pretty much everything else you already know but might want to learn about again.

PS — egads!  For early readers, I apologize for all the typos!  I have now scrubbed them out.

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2 responses to “Renegade, by Richard Wolffe

  1. I’ve noticed this in other nonfiction books, where the writer offers up the same information in the book, ostensibly to aid the reader. To me, at least, it seems like the author or editor doesn’t trust the reader enough to remember the details.

    That’s probably exactly right. Reader trust issues are a big problem for some readers.

    Catnip. They seem to rub it all over their faces, which makes them high.

  2. For some WRITERS, I mean. Gnar.

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