Barack Hussein Obama is one lucky guy. Though he won the American presidency outright with an absolute thrashing of Senator John McCain in the Electoral College, Obama’s ascendancy to the most coveted seat in politics was also aided by several opportune people, events, and situations along the way. The story of his victory is one of outrageous campaign implosions of rivals and opponents; surprising victories and disappointing losses; legendary speeches; engendering advertising; and grassroots organizing. Putting it bluntly, President Obama had the luck of the Irish—and a lot of it.
This is not an unusual statement because Obama ispartly Irish. According to journalist Niall Stanage, the president’s great-great-great-grandfather was Falmouth Kearney, who emigrated from Ireland in 1850 and came to the US. Apparently, Obama is exceedingly popular in Ireland and supported by the native population and American expats alike. There was even a bar, Ollie Hayes’ pub in County Offaly, which was the unofficial Obama rallying point for his supporters. Who knew?
The irony of all this is that the president, while loved in Ireland during the campaign, was heavily disliked by the Irish-American community, who supported Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries and then heavily supported John McCain during the election. The reasoning for this oddity is the misinformed and no longer accurate notion that the Irish-American community is a major player in American electoral politics. Though the community is still visible and vocal about a plethora of issues, their self-perceived importance in American politics has waned considerably in the last 30 years with the influx and rise of other, better-organized communities.
This electoral surprise and many others of Obama’s remarkable rise to power are highlighted in Stanage’s new book, Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign. This is an enjoyable account of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign that reads in part like a biography. Stanage is an Irish journalist—though living in New York—and does bring a certain third-party, international objectivity to the lens viewing American politics. However, he is no Tocqueville, but an unabashed Obama supporter and Republican opponent. Stanage’s lack of objectivity is readily apparent in descriptions like that of Dubya’s America as “a cold and dark place, of torture at Abu Ghraib, internment at Guantanamo Bay and intolerance and avarice all around.”
We know that Obama emerged with a Pyrrhic victory, but at what cost? How did someone described as “haughty” or “hubristic” and at times, “arrogant”, pull it all of? How did he distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright scandal and other miscues and become the most loved president since JFK? How did an unknown senator who “filed papers to form a presidential exploratory committee” on 16 January 2008 become president less than a year later?
According to Stanage, it all started with Obama’s advisors, who were there for more than goodwill. The author paints the team of David Axelrod, chief strategist; David Plouffe, campaign manager; Robert Gibbs, communication director; and Julianna Smoot, fundraising director, as a group of individuals who genuinely care about their employer. “Their visceral beliefs in Obama,” writes Stanage, “never clouded their vision.”
And it was, of course, about the candidate—a charismatic politician who genuinely believed in people and their ability to do well and improve the lives of their neighbors. In the words of Kimberly Lightford, a state senator from Illinois, who heard Obama speak at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, “It’s hard to describe what I was feeling—it was just joy. The closest thing I’ve felt to that feeling was when I gave birth.”
Stanage paints Obama as a unique presidential candidate who played by the rules, but also invented new ones. For example, his team used a de-racialized campaign strategy that emphasized his “American” identity versus that of a specific racial or ethnic group. The author also discusses the role of negative advertising—or the lack thereof—in Obama’s campaign. By the early 1990s, political scientists like Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar had already posited that “attack ads” were actually detrimental to American politics because of their ability to polarize the electorate. Perhaps the Obama team had read this research because they used much less than either the Clinton or McCain campaigns, which seems to have worked for Obama in the end.
But, Obama’s victory was more than just about him or his team and this is where Redemption Song really shines—as a living and organic document of how a number of small figures and events aided his campaign along the way. President Obama’s victory didn’t just happen overnight, but took years to come to fruition. It was about his parents, a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother, who would wed amid open hostility and would do so several years before the Supreme Court overturned state laws against miscegenation in Loving v. Virginia (1967).
It was his devolution of power to local organizations, which resulted in the largest grassroots campaign in history—1.5 million active volunteers and three million unique fundraisers. It was about Gerald Kellman, who in 1992, gave Obama a job as a community organizer in Chicago for $10,000 and watched the future president help register 150,000 new voters. It was about winning the Iowa primary when only 2.5 percent of the state’s population was black. And it was about every person and politician along the way whom he befriended and supported, who would in turn lend a hand to support him during his campaign.
But, Obama’s Irish luck came about in a different way too via the car crashes in slow motion or debacles of every political opponent he faced along the way from the Illinois state legislature to the US Senate to the White House. Stanage gleefully gets the ball rolling on this topic by discussing how Obama fortuitously took Alice Walker’s seat in the state legislature after she planned to run for Congress and promised to not run against him if she lost in her Congressional bid. Well, she did lose and she did renege on her promise not to challenge Obama, but we know who came out on top in that one.
Then, during the 2003 US Senate race, Obama—who was not the frontrunner—surged to the lead after several spectacular implosions of his rivals. From the allegation of domestic violence against Blair Hull to Jack Ryan’s sex club debacle to Alan Keyes’ comment that even Jesus wouldn’t vote for Obama, Stanage reports on all of it and brings forth the idea that Obama did not necessarily win as much as his opponents lost.
This pattern of rival miscues would only continue and intensify during the 2008 presidential campaign. Stanage methodically takes the reader through the primaries and as the candidates trundle along, just as in some endurance race, people start falling by the wayside. Oops, there goes Governor Mitt Romney (“a rather wooden-looking man with a pure-white smile and Brylcreemed dark hair”)! There goes Senator Clinton, as she stumbles and tumbles amid sniper fire in Bosnia; her husband’s ill-tinged comments on race; and a horrible debate on illegal immigration at Drexel University. And then Governor Sarah Palin! (Katie Couric, anyone?)
And then of course there was Senator McCain, whose electoral success—at least ‘til November—was a surprise to most attentive policy elites, including Republicans. That the Arizona senator came so close to abandoning his campaign all-together and regain momentum was astonishing and even the liberal Stanage gives credit where credit is due. But, that is about as far as the Irish journalist goes. For the rest of the book he lambasts McCain as a veteran with PTSD-induced anger issues, given to “venomous personal abuse” in Congress. In one particularly revealing moment, Former President George W. Bush went to shake McCain’s hand and promise him that some recent libel campaigns in South Carolina were not associated with Bush’s campaign. McCain apparently shot back, “Don’t give me that shit and take your hands off me.”
With all of that said, however, Stanage’s book does lack for an obvious theme—the purported “Irishness” of it all. When you subtitle a book, “An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign,” the reader might expect a narrative rich in comparative juxtaposition between Ireland and the United States, but that is oddly lacking. There are the occasional references to Irish themes—the Kennedys, McCain’s attendance at an Irish-American rally and a cute picture of Obama at a Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade—but, that’s about it. The title of the book appears to be derived from Chapter Nine, “Obama, Ireland and the World”, which reads like it was first written as a magazine article, from which the book grew.
In the end, Niall Stanage’s book will undoubtedly be a big read in Ireland, but probably less so in the United States because of a transparent lack of objectivity. Unfortunately for Stanage, the book format was probably not the best vehicle for this work and perhaps, it should have stayed as a series of newspaper columns or magazine articles. In the future, Stanage would do well to leave his personal politics out of it—if that is possible—and bring a more balanced approach.