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