“You want a bag, honey?”
“Maybe I should buy some porn to put the National Review in.”
—Guy Rundle in Down to the Crossroads
No matter how confident some were in their political forecasting skills, no one could have said a year ago how the US Presidential Election would play out with any certainty. Everyone had their insights, their crystal ball gazings and predictions, but with all those known unknowns and unknown unknowns, it was hard to be sure.
Liberals in particular had to wrestle with a combination of hope that this was their chance after eight years of Bush the Second and recollection of the past campaign mistakes that had led to eight years of Bush the Second. Only the most irrepressible optimists felt no doubts.
Hindsight quickly renders books published during election campaigns irrelevant. Many seek to be the first to chronicle a politician’s journey to the Presidency, but publish before the ballot papers are in and you may end up in the same class as “Dewey defeats Truman”. The rapidly changing fortunes of an election campaign are better suited to essays, news stories, and blog posts, where views and judgements can be adapted over time—preserving reputations in the process. Leave the book-length assessments to afterwards.
Down to the Crossroads sits somewhere between after-the-fact reflection and real-time chronicle. Much of the material included in this full-length book was previously published in the Australian email newsletter Crikey over the course of 2008. Sent to the USA by Editor Jonathan Green to cover the primaries and campaign proper, Guy Rundle kept Australian political junkies entertained with his grass-roots, talking-to-the-taxidriver-about-politics reportage.
Naturally, it would have been easy for Rundle to have edited his work in such a way as to seem more prescient than he actually was—the man who always knew Obama was going to win. If nothing else, Rundle deserves our respect for his honesty in relaying his thoughts as events unfolded. No, the author of Down to the Crossroads didn’t know for certain that Obama was going to win. Admit it, neither did you.
Even more boldly, Rundle stands by many of his snap judgements, based as they were on the information available at the time. In truth, his criticisms of the Obama campaign are not completely negated by the final result. As Rundle relates, Obama took some time to find his campaign legs and frequently failed to respond adequately to challenges by both Clinton and McCain. Remembering the campaign as it actually was, it’s hard not to feel that Obama’s sometimes-flawed campaign was saved by far greater errors of judgement on the part of his opponents and an economic catastrophe that favoured the candidate of “change”.
Down to the Crossroads is an excellent record of the often bizarre events of 2008, including the surreal turn of events taken the moment the Alaskan Governor appears on the scene. Rundle’s narrative is definitely good fun. If his original Crikey contributions sometimes felt like Gonzo-lite, he has toned down many of his Hunter S. Thompson-isms in the editing process. Some of the original articles read like the result of chronic sleep deprivation and overexposure to Fox News. In their final form, they’re mostly lucid and clever. That’s not to say it’s flawless. While Rundle’s jokes about Sarah Palin being one [insert geriatric joke] away from the Presidency are funny in isolation, reading them article after article makes for diminishing returns.
For American readers, it may be worth asking whether you really need to hear an Australian’s perspective. Is an outsider going to understand the cultural distinctives and internal politics that make up the United States? Is there anything to be learned here?
To be honest, Rundle isn’t Alexis de Tocqueville. His insights into what makes the USA tick are fairly standard issue Australian Leftie. In the USA, there are lots of rich people and lots of poor people. Many of both kinds are fat and a lot of the latter don’t have health care. There’s a lot of TV commentary and it’s pretty biased. This assessment isn’t entirely new. Rundle is at least aware of this and even defends himself “lest I come off sounding like a 19-year-old socialist alternative recruit”. He likes things about the USA. Seriously.
Naturally, most readers of this book will be untroubled by a lack of nuanced understanding of American society. The original articles were missives from abroad and Down to the Crossroads is likewise intended for an Australian audience. This sometimes comes at the cost of relevance to other readers. What a non-Australian would make of the description of John McCain as “the Petro Georgiou of the GOP” is anybody’s guess. (If you’re wondering, Georgiou is an Australian parliamentarian known for speaking out against his conservative party brethren. Obviously.)
One of the most interesting aspects of Rundle’s outsider status is how his perspective was influenced by the 2007 Australian election campaign. There are many superficial similarities between the two elections. In both, a social democrat sought to replace a long-time conservative leader that had taken the country into unpopular wars. Social networking and new media played an unprecedented role. Generational change was promised.
Naturally, there are also striking differences. Obama was a far more progressive candidate that Kevin Rudd, whose main election strategy was to appear as unthreatening as possible while creating an aura of “change”. Australia’s John Howard was also far less unpopular than US Republicans as far as the general populace was concerned.
For these reasons, Rundle wisely does not use “Kevin 07” as a predictor for American affairs. But he is able to reflect on the disillusionment of watching a “change” candidate deliver very little in his first 12 months. Obama’s inspirational campaign leaves him open to an even greater anticlimax. How he responds to difficult circumstances overseas and at home will form a fascinating second act to his story. If Rundle is a little bit less breathless in his Obamania than other correspondents, this previous lesson learnt is why.
Now the election is starting to seem a distant memory, a book of superseded thoughts on the campaign trail may not be top of your reading priorities. Down to the Crossroads is clever and insightful enough to remain relevant for some time.