I have to admit, it wasn’t my idea to write the book; it was Barack Obama’s. Early in the primary season, he floated the notion of me writing a modern version of Teddy White’s classic The Making of the President 1960. I brushed him off, saying that was ridiculously old-fashioned. He looked crestfallen and moved on.
A few weeks later, after talking to friends and colleagues, I reconsidered my hasty dismissal.
This was clearly a campaign and an election unlike any others in living memory. The candidate was an enigma – partly because he was so new, and partly because he kept himself hidden. And I was one of the very few reporters who had covered his campaign from the very beginning: from a frigid day in Springfield, through a long hot summer in Iowa, to the extraordinary, extended primary season.
The story was important and exciting enough to need a first-hand perspective. It needed to be told by a reporter with a front-row seat.
That was back in early 2008, a full year after I started covering the Obama campaign. I had already interviewed the candidate a few times for Newsweek magazine. I had watched him closely as he talked to small crowds in sweaty gyms and drove through Iowa snowstorms on his sleek black bus. I had played basketball with him and his aides on primary days and talked at length to his wife, friends and closest advisers.
What followed, as the primary season turned into an extended white-knuckle ride, was a rolling conversation with the candidate and his inner-circle: through Super Tuesday, Texas and Ohio, Pennsylvania, the turmoil of Reverend Wright, and beyond. I was with Obama backstage on the night he clinched the nomination, in St Paul, Minnesota, and again on the night he accepted the nomination, at the convention in Denver. I toured Europe and the Middle East with him and the battleground states which decided the general election.
My goal was not to write a book like Teddy White’s, retelling the tale of the campaign. Instead, I wanted to answer what I thought would be the enduring question about Barack Obama: who is he?
With a relatively thin résumé before coming to Washington, the presidential campaign of 2008 was the biggest undertaking of his life, and the single biggest enterprise he had managed. So the organization – built from scratch by a man with no money and an alien name – was more than just a campaign. It could help answer the question of who he was and what kind of leader he might become. The campaign story was living biography, as well as living history.
It struck me that Renegade, his Secret Service code name, was a good place to start in trying to define this elusive, semi-obscured character. It wasn’t a perfect definition; nobody can be boiled down to a single word. This renegade was not just a rule-breaker who decided against waiting his turn. He was also a cautious, meticulous, deliberative and self-disciplined rule-breaker. Without the discipline and strategic vision, a renegade is a John McCain-style maverick, with wild swings in direction. With too much deliberation, the candidate is a John Kerry-style plodder with little decisive leadership. Obama was a cautious renegade and he needed both sides to succeed.
So the book does not follow a straight line from Iowa to New Hampshire, and from Super Tuesday to the general election. It looks at this complex character thematically: how the renegade decided to run, how he built his Iowa campaign in the model of a community organizer, how he dealt with failure, how he sought to be a game-changer, and how he mastered foreign and economic policy.
I set out not just to capture the events of an exceptional election, but to paint a portrait of the 44th president of the United States of America. I hope you love reading Renegade as much as I loved writing it.