They Said This Day Would Never Come

Chris Liddell-Westefeld

Hodder & Stoughton £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

The speed at which politics can move makes the pace of professional ice hockey seem sluggish in comparison. Politics also, of course, has a capacity for the thrills and spills that mark activities on the rink.

The rise of Barack Obama was sudden and dramatic but it has precedence. Abraham Lincoln, for example, ventured to Chicago as the strong outsider of four for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860. You may know what happened next.

Obama made his national breakthrough in a nomination speech in 2004. Four years later he was president. Chris Liddell-Westefeld was a volunteer as Obama made his historic push in the 2008 primaries and went on to work in the White House for five years. His chronicle of the initial rise of Obama is an oral history told by campaign workers. It is thus sympathetic but has considerable charms and quiet revelations.

He admits that “in the early days, Presidential campaigns attract dreamers” and it is moving to hear from people who dropped their lives to work for a candidate who imbued hope and the possibility of change. It should, of course, be noted that this was not a campaign that was run purely on romanticism. David Plouffe, Obama for America campaign manager, admitted: “We spent an enormous amount of money in Iowa.”

This is a reference to the first primary of the Democratic nomination campaign. Obama and his advisers believed that if they won that then momentum could carry them all the way. It did.

Liddell-Westefeld tracks the twists of the campaign and offers guidance to the arcane caucus and primary systems, and the differing imperatives of varying states. There is one constant, though. The problem of race relations is stark, ugly. One black volunteer is told to introduce himself immediately to police in a Midwest town with the further admonition that he does not want to meet them for the first time on the street. Volunteers are routinely abused with the N word.

Obama, too, is assailed with lies and besieged by behaviour that is simply sordid. He overcomes all this with the help of his intellect, impressive resilience and confidence, bolstered by his ability to attract committed helpers. Obama became a cause. The possibility of the first black president galvanised a movement.

This, though, is largely the story of humble campaign workers. Some went on to work in the White House but others returned to old lives or ventured into new ones. Some felt disappointed that promises over careers were not kept by the campaign. Others shrugged and went onto pursue other dreams.

They all, however, shared a role in the greatest political drama of the early part of the millennium. There is, then, a forgivable sense of accomplishment, even self-congratulation, emanating from They Said This Day Would Never Come.

But the pace of politics has brought another day. Liddell-Westefeld alludes to the changes promised by Obama in healthcare, climate change and international relations. There was hope that this man and his presidency could turn the direction of the juggernaut that is the USA. In his eight years, Obama revised healthcare after a bruising battle in the Senate and reached a détente with Iran over nuclear power. In less than four years, his successor has dismantled all this and more.

The message of 2008 was that everything had changed and the clock could not be wound back. The reality is that the USA is a more reactionary, racially divided country than it was before the election of Obama.

The first black president wrote a book entitled The Audacity of Hope. The USA has never needed this quality more, as well as realisation that it takes more than aspiration to achieve lasting change. The lesson from Liddell-Westefeld is that great power is only won through dedication and hard work allied to a candidate of charisma, intelligence and inspiration. It is a timely lesson for the Democrats in the year of a Presidential election.