The latest from Michael Hastings, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign is a brisk and enthralling book that does what it says on the tin. Hastings’ writing style oscillates between that of straightforward, traditional journalism and Thompson-esque stream-of-consciousness gonzo journalism, resulting in a read that never bores, but also never leaves reason to doubt its veracity.
Hastings’ book tells, primarily, the story of the “panic” experienced by the Obama campaign following the President’s disastrous first debate with challenger Mitt Romney, and the hair on fire weeks that followed. It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this panic was legitimate and how much was manufactured (by the media for ratings, or by the campaign itself for fundraising purposes), but that’s half the fun. By focusing on the debate prep, the advertising, and the social media campaign, Panic 2012 provides great insight into the highly effective, if not exactly well oiled, Obama 2012 Machine.
Hastings’ take on events is especially unique given his outsider status on the trail. Having moved from Rolling Stone (where he was no friend to the Obama agenda) to up-start Buzzfeed, Hastings lacks some of the clout and most of the goodwill held by his counterparts on the trail. The resulting point of view is a sharp look at not just the campaign, but the media that surrounds it.
As fascinating as the campaign’s actions are, some of the best bits of the book come as Hastings focuses his attention on the White House press pool. This collection of, as Hastings calls them, the best and worst journalists in the business manages to provide meaningful content in trying conditions, but also manages to flaut some of the expectations that Joe Public might have governing journalistic behavior. Most common and humorous, is the serious chafing Hastings describes in the multiple occasions on which he is told arbitrarily and after the fact that a given event is “off the record.”
Panic 2012 is certainly not the definitive look at Obama For America 2012–Hastings got almost no access to key campaign players until after the election. It is, however, an exciting and insightful look at the campaign. While more exhaustive accounts are surely forthcoming, it’s difficult to imagine that many will be as much damn fun as this one.
Hastings is perhaps still best known as the author of “The Runaway General,” the Rolling Stone piece that ended Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career (and its’ book-length followup The Operators). It is unlikely that Panic 2012 will end any careers (though stick around till the end for a Rahm Emanuel anecdote that will SURELY complicate the mayors’), but it certainly confirms that Hastings’ career is one worth continuing to watch.