In 2014, CNN’s digital senior vice president of premium content Ed O’Keefe made a relatively tame pitch to president Jeff Zucker and executive vice-president of digital Andrew Morse: He wanted to do a book covering the upcoming 2016 presidential election that would be somewhat in the vein of hallmark tomes such as Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President series or Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus. However, unlike accounts of presidential elections past, O’Keefe envisioned this book as a real-time narrative of what would unfold and that would be published mere weeks after Election Day.
It was a pitch based more on creating a detailed portrait of a campaign in real-time, but what O’Keefe and the team at CNN couldn’t foresee was just how divisive and vitriolic that campaign would be.
“It’s worth mentioning that we made the pitch for this book before Donald Trump was in the race,” O’Keefe says. “I know a lot of people think CNN did a book because Donald Trump was in the race. That’s not the case at all. It wouldn’t be possible for us to have done what we did if we were doing it in reaction to a candidate.”
Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything is an in-depth chronicle of the messy saga that became the 2016 presidential election, illustrated with exclusive photos from the campaign trail.
“I wanted to publish the book online as a multimedia experience–do on the internet what only the internet can do [by presenting] different immersive interactive graphics and storytelling experiences that you can’t hold in a book,” O’Keefe says. “And then in the book, create an experience that only a book can do, a chance for a physical memento of the campaign, to lean heavily on the photography and the insider information.”
As it turns out, a crucial element to creating a book focused on arguably one of the most explosive political moments in American history was to hire a writer with zero political reporting experience.
“Basically my pitch to them was, look, it’s true that I’ll have to learn a lot about politics on the job, but I can bring some fresh eyes to this wild circus and have an outsider’s perspective on it,” says Unprecedented author and CNN politics senior writer Thomas Lake.
As a writer for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, Lake has built a reputation for his lyrical style that has the ability to deftly dissect the emotions of his subjects.
“Journalism ‘Inside the Beltway’ is who’s winning and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out,” says Rachel Smolkin, executive editor of CNN Politics. “I just liked the empathy that he brought to all of the work that I saw him do. I thought this election was so important and the stakes were so high that it would be very valuable to bring in somebody who A) is a beautiful and fabulous writer and B) comes to this from an outside perspective and treats all of his subjects with such empathy.”
After much trial and error, Lake and Smolkin finally found a way to frame the presidential race in a way that would capitalize on the novelistic approach set forth for Unprecedented. Chapter one recounts President George W. Bush addressing rescue workers just three days after the September 11th attacks. His impassioned words set off a rousing chant of “USA! USA! USA!” Fast forward to Trump’s now infamous rallies where that same chant was used over and over again but had taken on new meaning.
“Some really good writers I’ve known have said that they write the ending first and then work backwards–clearly that wasn’t possible in this case,” Lake says. “The way we got around that was to step way back and say, how can we make this about more than just a presidential election? Let’s take a snapshot of our nation in the year 2016 and use the presidential election as a way of getting at that, of who we are and where we’re going as a country.”
“There needed to be more context than just a race,” O’Keefe adds. “That’s what drew him back to 9/11, the fall of the Twin Towers, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, the anger of America–the coming together and fraying apart all led to this moment, and [Lake] needed to put it in context.”
Contextualizing the political, economical, and social climates of America oftentimes meant shutting out the minute-by-minute fracas of reporting that floods news streams–ironic given CNN’s 24/7 coverage and the real-time structure of Unprecedented. Yet in Lake’s opinion, that need to zoom out on a story is what’s often missing from political reporting.
“One thing I noticed is how it seems like so much of what gets written is guided by ‘what’s the conversation right this very minute?’ That can lead to a short attention span for journalists, and it does make it harder to step back and say, ‘what’s actually important here?’” Lake says. “Granted, we want to be totally up-to-the-minute and know what did Trump say just now. But I found this happening to me as I went through this process, getting so obsessed with what happened in the last five minutes that it was hard to think straight. In moments like that I had no choice but to quit Microsoft Outlook on my computer and put my iPhone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode and just try to think quietly and say, ‘Okay, what does this all mean?’ Any time that I wrote anything good in this book, it was probably a result of doing that, of trying to disconnect from being totally up-to-the-minute and actually trying a little harder to make sense of it all.”
As the shockwaves of Trump’s win continue to reverberate and its looming consequences remain unknown, Unprecedented is what O’Keefe calls a “first rough draft of history,” a book that could become a reference point for analyses to come.
“[Unprecedented] doesn’t allow for the political pundits or the experts to look at [the presidential race] with retrospective history. In retrospect, the winners are more brilliant than they were the day before the election and the losers are worse,” O’Keefe says. “I love the historical nonfiction. You don’t get it Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton without Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and a lot of those books rely on documents and accounts that were written in real-time. I feel like we’re losing that. I feel like we’ve got less context, and what [Unprecedented] did was slow it down, put it on paper, and capture it for all time. So hopefully 20, 40, 60, 100 years from now it’s an original source for people looking back on 2016 who were not alive at the time or who did not experience it in real-time to better understand what happened.”
Unprecedented is published by Melcher Media and goes on sale Tuesday, December 6.