‘Working on a Dream’, the title of Bruce Springsteen’s new album, derives its sense of optimism, of renewal, of hope from the election of Barack Obama.
It’s a sentiment that doesn’t so much as run through Niall Stanage’s account of a campaign destined to become the defining moment of 21st century America: it positively gallops.
And in so doing, the reader is safely steered through a potential minefield of facts, stats and exit polls by a newsman in clear command of his craft.
In the preface, penned just a week after the Churchillian-like orator had delivered another history soaked speech on victory night in Chicago, Stanage captured the new beat that the Obama drum had initiated across America.
On a February afternoon in the city of Baltimore, people came in their thousands to listen to the words of the man then contesting the Democratic nomination with Hillary Clinton.
Sensing an aligning of fates, as the irresistible force of the Obama campaign began to truly take flight, Stanage captured what the candidate espoused every day on what was to prove a victorious trail to Pennsylvania Avenue.
The ordinary Joes (Joe the Plumber aside, that is), especially those never before motivated to avail of their suffrage, wanted change, a new direction, something different in and from their political leadership.
The people wanted someone symbolic, someone who could inspire, someone who would speak of the light that lay ahead even amidst the darkness caused by war, defaulting mortgages and increasing joblessness.
Barack Obama rode the crest of an unprecedented social wave that swept across a country as vast as it is diverse, a wave that has now propelled him into the leadership of the ‘Free World’.
And in ‘Redemption Song’, Stanage meticulously catalogues the journey, whose earliest national steps could be traced to Obama’s convention-stealing speech back in 2004, during John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential tilt.
Even then, the fresh-faced Senator from Illinois was credited with “an amazing moment in history”, prompting Chris Matthews, an Irish-American speechwriter of Jimmy Carter’s to declare: “I’ve just seen the first black president there.”
His early days in local politics are briefly but appropriately recalled, as was his trouncing of Republican candidate Alan Keyes (no relation) come the ‘04 general election which sent him into the Senate.
As George Bush clinched a second term, Obama’s win was, writes the author “the single bright flare in a dark night for the Democrats”. Little did anyone know just how bright, in more ways than one, that flare would prove to be.
The Democratic head-to-head with Senator Clinton, now Obama’s Secretary of State in a cabinet which resembles Abraham Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’, forms the centrepiece of the book.
In a compelling and sometimes frayed contest, with most of the rough edges en route to the nomination stemming from camp Clinton, Stanage observed how a skilled, leak-free Obama camp did the unthinkable in bettering the awesome Clinton machine.
Despite possessing the deepest roots in the party, the Clintons didn’t bargain on Obama surviving beyond ‘Super Tuesday’, never mind seriously contesting the nomination into the summer.
That the Obama camp would become the one with the deepest pockets, mainly thanks to small donations, would later prove of even greater significance come the presidential election.
Detailing all this and so much more, Stanage does a terrific job and has provided readers with a drudge-free, finely researched book which draws on his own reportage and that of many colleagues.
Facts rule here, with the author, at all times, proving secondary to the story – like all journalists worth their salt should be.
He also profiles Republican candidate John McCain, cataloguing how the Arizona Senator’s ‘maverick’ status would come undone due to tightening campaign purse strings and the ill-informed meanderings of running mate Sarah Palin.
If it were a novel, the ’08 election could have had only one, romantic outcome, yet the fear of the ‘Bradley effect’ – that voters taking one line in an opinion poll would take another in the ballot box, remained pervasive until November 4th.
But that fear dispelled on a night that will live long in the memory of civil rights activists across the United States.
The man championed by Ted Kennedy, by Oprah Winfrey, by Colin Powell, by a mass of newly registered and first time voters, had seen off Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the bias, ignorance and intolerance of the past.
A man, whom Stanage said did not wear a mask, who kept his emotions in check (the death of his beloved grandmother aside), that didn’t embrace triumphalism or engage in negative politics, had swept to power.
And to be a first hand witness to it all was something that the author clearly relished, his passion for the subject matter and his trade bounding through several passages of the book.
Those Stanage befriended on his trips to the cafes, homes, town halls and bucket seated arenas of the States are recalled; the sense that this was their story, not his, a strong theme prevalent throughout ‘Redemption Song’.
The book ends, as it should, in Grant Park, Chicago, with Obama joined by his family to accept the adulation of the thousands that had gathered in this Windy City spot.
Yet this was no ordinary night. This was no ordinary man. This had been no ordinary election.
“[The Obamas] stood there, waving and smiling, and every person watching realised that it was a moment for the ages,” Stanage recalls.
“At that instant, on that mild November night, those four people were emblems of a nation where it seemed, once again, that astonishing things could happen. It was a place full of promise, luminous with possibility.”
There could be no better way to conclude as finely honed a book as this than by championing the oft-touted American Dream, the dream that Springsteen has articulated in song.
As an account of history still too new to be described as anything other than living, Niall Stanage has produced a truly cracking work, articulating that one and same dream in text. And it’s a work that will not disappoint anyone who picks it up.
‘Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama campaign’ is published by Liberties Press