- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sending flowers and candy would have been cheaper and less time-consuming.

While journalists and political junkies love behind-the-scenes accounts of campaigns and are always on the lookout to find out what makes candidates “tick,” the genre is fraught with peril. Candidates can grant access to a reporter but risk getting burned. Journalists can be sucked in and write books that intimate that their subject all but walks on water.

When making such an arrangement with Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe, President Obama clearly got a sweet deal. He received mostly favorable coverage during the campaign and a book that will further burnish his image.

Mr. Wolffe received a book contract and considerable face time with the candidate and his staff. The result, “Renegade: The Making of a President,” is a one-sided look at the 2008 presidential campaign that could have been written, with a few minor editing changes, by Mr. Obama.

This approach also shortchanges the reader. It is, to be sure, interesting to learn what Mr. Obama and his aides were thinking at certain key points during the campaign. However, because Mr. Wolffe does not include the perspectives of other candidates, the Obama team comes across as operating in a vacuum.

For example, Mr. Wolffe devotes considerable attention to the strategic planning and execution of the Obama camp’s reaction to Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. An interview with Mr. McCain or one of his top aides on the reasoning behind it and what reactions they anticipated would have put things in broader perspective.

Those looking for more than a cursory treatment of the campaigns of Mr. McCain or then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (to say nothing of the other Democratic candidates) will have to look elsewhere.

This is a major shortcoming of the book in light of Mr. Wolffe’s desire (following a suggestion made by Mr. Obama) to create a modern-day equivalent of Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” series. Those books, which dealt with the campaigns of 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 and included a summary work that chronicled all the races between 1956 and 1980, were far superior.

Mr. White, a reporter for Time, presented profiles of all the candidates and painted a written picture of the state of the nation at the time. Though his approach transformed political journalism, he could occasionally fall in love with his subjects, as evidenced by his comparison of the Kennedy presidency to Camelot.

Despite the problems with Mr. Wolffe’s approach, the book does offer several important insights into his extraordinarily talented and complex subject. Two of the best parts are the detailed and well-reported chapters on Mr. Obama’s complicated relationship with the black community and his own blackness and on how his personal experiences shaped his approach to foreign policy.

“For many supporters, the X factor was attractive, even inspiring. Obama represented a new generation, a break with the past in black and white politics, and a chance to heal the nation’s wounds, whether racial or political. For many others, the X factor was unsettling, threatening, bound up with the dark side of racial politics,” Mr. Wolffe writes.

Reading the chapter on race and politics, coupled with Gwen Ifill’s recent book, “The Breakthrough,” provides a fuller understanding of what the Obama candidacy means for modern-day racial politics.

Mr. Wolffe’s chapter on the factors that have influenced Mr. Obama’s worldview is especially revelatory in terms of explaining his nuanced and often sophisticated approach to America’s dealings with foreign nations, especially those in the Muslim world. He learned a great deal about that region by spending part of his childhood in Indonesia (which is a Muslim, though sectarian, state) and from having two close friends in college, one of whom was a Sunni and the other a Shi’ite.

“While his friends did not engage in religious argument, they helped explain the forces that would lead directly to a brutal civil war. Obama understood that it would never be easy to reconcile Iraq, or transform it into a peaceful democracy after invasion and occupation,” he writes.

Mr. Wolffes pro-Obama leanings come through when he all too often dismisses legitimate critiques by Mr. McCain and others. It is one of many instances in which he squanders the chance make “Renegade: The Making of a President” the book of record about the 2008 campaign.

• Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

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