Behind the Scenes From Day One

Daren Briscoe, a correspondent in our Washington bureau, was puzzled. He had come home one day in mid-2006 to discuss a possible assignment with his wife, Rochelle. We had asked Daren to join the team for what we call "the Project," a special reporting undertaking in which we cover the presidential campaigns on an embargoed basis; anything they learn is kept confidential until the polls close on Election Day. We build a wall around the team, and the reporters do not share information with the weekly magazine or staffs. The assignment entails an enormous amount of travel, months and months away from home and delayed journalistic gratification; none of their work sees the light until after the ballots are cast. And Daren had another issue: he and Rochelle were expecting a baby. So why was she so open to the thought of her husband's going off to cover Barack Obama for what could be more than two years? As Rochelle told Daren later, "I thought he'd be out of the race by March."

As the world now knows, he was not out by March, and Daren's reporting for the project is a crucial element of the sprawling, nearly 50,000-word narrative account of the making of the president, 2008. Written by Evan Thomas, the project was edited by Alexis Gelber, with Peter Goldman helping guide the team and contributing some McCain reporting of his own. Daren was with Obama from beginning to end. Katie Connolly covered McCain for the duration. Nick Summers started with Hillary Clinton, then moved to Obama after the primaries. Eleanor Clift covered both Clinton and Obama. Daniel Stone did additional reporting and was the project's researcher. As you will see, the result is a rich and complex first draft of history.

Katie, who is from Australia, found that "covering a U.S. presidential election as a foreigner can be an awkward experience." There were glares when she did not pledge allegiance to the flag, or clearly did not know the words to the national anthem. Her colleagues in the traveling press corps took delight in her confession that she had never been to a Wal-Mart. Steve Schmidt, the McCain campaign's chief strategist, thought Katie's Aussie-ness endlessly entertaining, engaging her in conversation about Bindi Irwin, the daughter of the crocodile hunter, and urged her to say "G'day" and "Foster's, it's Australian for beer" to Senator McCain. (She went on to tell the Republican nominee that no self-respecting Australian would be caught dead drinking a Foster's.)

A trip back to Australia in June brought home the stakes of what she was doing. "What happens in America matters to the rest of the world," Katie says. "The decisions of American presidents echo around the globe. At home, I was amazed by the interest the election had generated. My friends quizzed me about Electoral College maps, Hispanic voting trends and campaign finances. Some seemed more familiar with and Chuck Todd's daily musings than I was."

On the trail with Obama, Daren understood early on that, come what may, it was a historic campaign. "As Obama crisscrossed Iowa—the linchpin for his then fanciful-sounding 'early state strategy'—in December of 2007," Daren says, "I found myself at an event, wondering what an all-white, elderly crowd of rural Iowa farmers would make of this skinny black guy—until I noticed how many faded pairs of overalls and worn straw hats already had OBAMA buttons pinned to them." Then, in March 2008, when clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright crying "God damn America" were playing endlessly, Daren wondered whether Obama's candidacy would survive—until he watched Obama's subtle speech on race in Philadelphia. Daren's father, born and raised in the pre-civil-rights South, later told him: "That's the first time I've ever heard anybody explain how I feel." Daren's dad is 69 years old.

In addition to the project, we include pieces from Fareed Zakaria, Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, Ellis Cose, Sharon Begley, Daniel Gross, Raina Kelley, George F. Will and Anna Quindlen. Rick Perlstein, the author of "Nixonland," an account of the backlash against liberalism, traveled to Watts for us to report on how the Obama win felt in the neighborhood whose riot in 1965 helped create the era of politics that may well have ended on Tuesday night. This is not to say that the millennium is at hand, but Obama's triumph opens a new chapter in which the arguments and themes of recent decades will have to be re-examined, if not discarded altogether.

Katie should have the closing thought. "Mostly, as an outsider, I am struck by the dedication of Americans to this political extravaganza," she says. "Voters have embraced this epic odyssey with fervor. I'd venture that I've seen more of this diverse, beautiful land over the past year than many of its citizens. And from what I've witnessed, most Americans display a sincere reverence for the Oval Office and a serious devotion to the political process." Sometimes it takes a newcomer to remind us of old truths.