Writing The Last Chapter First

When I first read about Gwen Ifill’s enormous conflict of interest between her upcoming book titled, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama and her role as a debate moderator, I was reminded of a passage in James Piereson’s book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, on Theodore White, who wrote his first best-selling The Making of the President book after the 1960 election.


As far as the Ifill scandal today, Liz Cox Barrett of the liberal Columbia Journalism Review, (the house organ of “The Media’s Ancien Regime“, as Hugh Hewitt memorably dubbed the Columbia Journalism School) writes “it stands to reason” that a book titled, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, and due to be published on January 20th, concurrent with the 44th president being sworn in “would sell better if a certain person is inaugurated on that day”, and conservative Ed Morrissey agrees:

Yes, it does, as the “Age of Obama” would have no meaning otherwise. Barack Obama has been on the national stage a shorter period of time than John Edwards, who managed to win only one Senate race and no national contests. Obama at least won his party’s nomination for President, but has two fewer years than Edwards in office at the national level. What exactly is the “Age of Obama” if Obama loses in November? And how would that impact Ifill’s sales?

It’s tough to argue with them–but Ifill is far from the first political hagiographer to write a book beginning with the desired electoral outcome and working backwards. See if this passage on Theodore White from James Piereson’s book rings a bell:

A Boston native, White attended Harvard, graduating in 1938 as a classmate of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., though (on White’s telling) the two had little direct contact during their college years. Later, in the 1950s, he came to know John F. Kennedy while he (Kennedy) was the junior senator from Massachusetts and White a political reporter for Collier’s magazine. During this period, between the mid-1950s and the beginning of Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency in 1960, the two met often in Washington, with White gleaning from Kennedy much inside information about the leading personalities in Washington. From these conversations White conceived the idea of writing a book on a presidential election campaign from beginning to end, with an emphasis on the various personalities contesting for the White House.


The challenge for the journalist in executing such a project was to portray the candidates in such a way that the most attractive personality came out on top–though, of course, the writer would have no control over the eventual outcome. As White later acknowledged in his memoirs, he decided to structure the book almost like a novel with its own hero and villain. Given White’s friendship with Kennedy, along with his dislike for Richard Nixon, he would (if events worked out the right way) cast the election as a morality play with Kennedy representing the forces of light and Nixon the forces of darkness. When White began the project, his wife wisely noted that “It’s probably a good book if Kennedy wins; but if Nixon wins, it’s a dog.”

White was so in the tank that Jackie Kennedy, through a reccomendation from Bobby, would personally call him to the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport to transcribe the epochal Life magazine article that would forever bind the late JFK’s administration and its tragic ending with Camelot.

(Fortunately, the Blogosphere allows voters a chance to actually see the sausage being made, unlike 1960.)

Update: Well, that’s a relief: Iowahawk satirically writes, “Ifill Ethics Commission Clears Ifill“. But a far greater scandal emerges: why wasn’t the vice presidential nominee of his third party candidacy invited to tonight’s debate?

More: Another political author, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon weighs in on Ifill’s conflict of interest:

Gwen’s a friend; of course, she’s a liberal. I hold here in high regard and would expect that she will be fair to both sides. My only other comment is that I would never have moderated a televised debate involving Reagan–and never did–because it would have been perceived as a conflict of interest by liberals and conservatives alike even though I think I would have been balanced. But perception is very important.


Of course, the media as a whole lost the perception battle long before the nation got their fill of Ifill Thursday night.


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