Somewhere within the United States Secret Service, a poet lurks. "Renegade" is its code name for Barack Obama, one of a family quartet of mellifluous "R"s along with "Renaissance" for Michelle, "Radiance" for Malia, and "Rosebud" for his youngest daughter, Sasha, who turns eight next week. But now "Renegade" serves a separate purpose, as the title of a book, not about Obama's earlier life, his time in Chicago or as Senator in Washington, but about Obama as he captures the White House.
The first book about a president is always a milestone, but never more than now, after surely the most extraordinary outsider's journey in US history – of a black man with the middle name Hussein, who now has the task of remaking America: not just its wounded economy, but its schools, its healthcare and its infrastructure; the way America sees the world, and the way the world sees it. In a way, the title rings strangely. Already Obama the President is part of the landscape. And is there anything less renegade-ish than this measured figure, possessed of a supreme self-confidence, always a step ahead of the game, keeping his head when all around are losing theirs? And that, according to Richard Wolffe's splendid book, is how he was, even as candidate Obama. But in another sense, our Secret Service poet was spot on. What better than "Renegade" to describe the man who turned conventional wisdom on its head to produce the most mesmerising American political story in a century?
As in few other countries, political books matter here. In Britain their main function is to provide titbits (sometimes years after the event, as with Edwina Currie's jaw-dropping revelation in her diaries that she once had an affair with John Major). But in the US they can frame a presidency, their potential for mischief only growing as each administration seeks to control the news cycle more tightly than its predecessor. Iraq took the shine off George W Bush. But so too did a succession of books, some by investigative reporters, some by former insiders with an axe to grind, depicting him as incurious and ill-informed, mulishly certain of his own first instincts, bent on launching his misbegotten war from the start of his presidency. However disciplined and "on message" a White House, books are the cracks through which unwelcome truths ooze out.
Books were a thorn in Bill Clinton's side too. No reporter makes an administration more nervous than Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, now the unofficial historian at Washington's presidential court. Take Woodward's 1994 book The Agenda, which was greeted, in the words of Clinton's close aide George Stephanopoulos, "as the most persuasive proof yet that Clinton was an undisciplined and indecisive president leading an inexperienced, out-of-control White House". The repercussions were immediate, and the image never entirely disappeared.
Obama may well inspire even more scribes than Bush or Clinton. Half a dozen Washington reporters are already planning volumes on his fledgling administration. Woodward too is said to be sniffing around, apparently determined to make up for the relative commercial failure of The War Within, his final tome on the Bush presidency, which sold "only" 159,000 copies. Obama and his team can consider itself warned.
At least, however, they are off to an easy start on the literary front. Finely observed and stylishly written, Renegade is worthy of its subject, who himself dazzled as an author long before he entered national politics. More reassuring for the White House, it will do little to disturb the enduring media honeymoon of the 44th president. Having covered the entire campaign, and conducted a dozen interviews with the man himself as candidate and President, and dozens more with his closest aides and advisers, Wolffe must know Obama better than any reporter alive. But that kind of access builds a bond. A hatchet job would have been a case not merely of biting the hand that fed you, but of chewing off the whole arm – and the arm of the person moreover who came up in the first place with the book project and, indirectly, even part of its very title.
In March 2008, after one of their interviews, Obama the writer stepped from the drama in which he was a central figure, to survey it from outside. "If I wasn't in this campaign, I would love to follow this election as an observer," he mused to Wolffe. "Why can't you write a book about it? Like Theodore White. Those are great books."
At first Wolffe was sceptical, but then realised Obama was correct – so correct indeed that the full title of the book is Renegade: The Making of a President, homage to White's The Making of the President, recounting John F Kennedy's 1960 campaign that generated a similar novelty and excitement. As usual, Obama was ahead of the game.
Naturally Renegade is full of titbits, among them the candidate's exasperation at having to deal with the "bald-faced lies of a former president [Clinton]" at the height of his primary battle with Hillary, as well as the revelation that even before the primaries were over, Obama had decided to offer his rival the plum job of Secretary of State, assuming he won. Never, though, did he ever seriously envisage making her his running mate. Above all, Renegade depicts a man as he undergoes the most exhausting ordeal by democracy on earth, a campaign for the US presidency.
Wolffe's of course is only the first. Scores, maybe hundreds, of books about Obama will follow. Just as night follows day, the honeymoon will end. Even this tight White House ship will spring leaks. Conservatives will pick up their pens again, scandals will erupt and disgruntled former staffers will publish unflattering versions of events. In the process, perceptions of the administration will shift. But Obama fans, do not lose heart. Even if his time in office ends in failure, the man who gave us Dreams from My Father will surely have the last word with the best written presidential memoirs ever.