Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House

In December 2007, I drove across snowy New Hampshire to meet with a local Democratic power broker, Billy Shaheen, who was helping oversee Hillary Clinton's campaign for the state primary, the first in the nation. With Barack Obama gaining in the polls, Shaheen started to expound on the disaster the Democrats risked if they nominated the Illinois senator.

“The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight . . . and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use," he told me. "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'"

It was the first time that the Clinton team had raised Obama's acknowledged marijuana and cocaine use as a young man, and my despatch caused an uproar. Shaheen resigned from his campaign post and Clinton apologised to Obama in person. But there was more to the episode, according to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's exhaustive and titillating narrative of the 2008 US presidential election. As they report it, Clinton was not displeased by the original statement. "Hillary's reaction to Shaheen's remarks was, 'Good for him!' Followed by, 'Let's push it out!'" they write. "Her aides violently disagreed, seeing what Shaheen had said as a PR disaster. Grudgingly, Clinton acquiesced to disowning Shaheen's comments."

So it goes throughout this insider's account, which aspires to show us how it all really was, behind the carefully formulated spin jobs at the time. The campaign is explained entirely through the personalities, ambitions and foibles of the candidates and their advisers. This suggests what might be called a Great Man theory of political history, though the book in fact shows just how flawed most of the participants were. The authors argue for this approach to history by noting that, "more than any election in memory, 2008 was a battle in which the candidates were celebrities, larger-than-life characters who crashed together to create a story uncommonly emotional for politics".

Heilemann, a veteran magazine writer, and Halperin, a scorekeeper of Washington's conventional wisdom, are well enmeshed in what they call the "politico-industrial complex", and got most of the key players to talk on "deep background", letting them recount, sans attribution, all the profanity-laced conference calls and the late-night panic sessions in provincial hotels. This raises eyebrows among arbiters of journalistic ethics, who question whether Heilemann and Halperin broke their own ground rules by relating the poorly chosen words of Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, who said that Obama had a chance of winning, because he was a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one".

But for many readers, the book's guilty pleasures will overwhelm such qualms. The authors focus above all on the epic battle of Clinton v Obama, alternating between the eerie self-assurance and unity of Obama and his camp and the utter dysfunction of what is known as "Hillaryland", where the candidate failed to resolve the nasty rivalries among her advisers and to head off the counterproductive interventions of her resentful husband.

The authors describe the "unnerving" scene in the Clinton camp on the night of Obama's pivotal win in the Iowa caucuses: "Watching [Hillary's] bitter and befuddled reaction, her staggering lack of calm or command, one of her seniormost lieutenants thought for the first time, 'This woman shouldn't be president.'" Coming off even worse are John Edwards, John Kerry's running mate in 2004, and his wife, Elizabeth. The authors mercilessly trace Edwards's descent into delusion as he seeks to conceal his affair with a campaign film-maker and the baby girl it produces. And Elizabeth, a hero to many for her struggles with cancer and a wayward husband, is rendered here as an "abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman".

The Republicans fare no better. As the authors tell it, John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin was even more haphazard than previously reported, and her off-camera behaviour in the weeks following is all the more disconcerting. We see her being transformed by a fleet of fashion mavens. "My brand is hair up, isn't it?" she blithely asks one image-maker. And we see her submitting to endless tutorials from advisers alarmed to discover that she is uncertain of, say, why North and South Korea are separate nations. Sometimes she eagerly takes notes on her tower of index cards; at other times she shuts down in a "catatonic stupor".

Obama emerges as the lone grown-up of the bunch, though readers ought to bear in mind that the victor's advisers have far less incentive to dish dirt. He maintains perspective throughout, joking at dispiriting moments that he will write a post-campaign book called This Is Ridiculous. When the incendiary videos of his pastor Jeremiah Wright surface, he strides into the damage-control meeting with a calm: "All right, let's get down to business." And when Wall Street collapses two months before the election, he takes control of a White House meeting on the looming bailout, eclipsing McCain.

The prose can be breathless and cartoonish - the Iowa defeat makes a Clinton adviser look "like she'd been hit with a poleaxe" and sends the Clintons themselves "reeling like a pair of Vegas drunks the morning after". And there are some omissions: the authors skirt the collapse of the Republican Mitt Romney's well-funded campaign and overlook a critical moment late in the primaries when Obama capitalised on Clinton's and McCain's demagogic rhetoric about gasoline taxes.

More broadly, the focus on the daily ups and downs of gaffes and zingers, endorsements and mini-scandals leaves out the broader sweep. There is little here, for instance, about Obama's grass-roots army, the evolution of his message, or the political tides that made voters so susceptible to it. His difficult first year in office served as a reminder of larger historical forces at work - an economy on its knees, an opposition party clinging to the filibuster. But Democrats have taken heart recently to see their man showing more of his 2008 vim and vigour. For those who need yet more reminders of that Obama, there is this evocation of a year when it really did seem that character was all.

Alec MacGillis is a correspondent for the Washington Post and writes regularly for the New Statesman.

Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Viking, 464pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.