UnPresidented, by Jon Sopel – book review

When should you read a book like UnPresidented: Politics, pandemics and the race that Trumped all others, the 2020 American presidential campaign diary by then BBC journo Jon Sopel? I started a long time ago, planning to interact with the book in the spirit in which it was meant: an election diary compiled at speed from daily entries. I was hoping to finish by Joe Biden’s inauguration. But then we all got distracted by the attack on the Capitol on 6 January. So I put the book away. Then the paperback came out, and I had another go. It was a good read but I wasn’t sure how to process it. It’s hard to know when to read the first draft of analysis when the circus is still rolling through town. Last week, the legal actions between Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems, about Fox’s coverage of the attacks, came to a close. This week, the British papers are covering Anthony Seldon’s snap analysis of Johnson at 10. It seems appropriate to reconsider Sopel’s tale from the trail as he tried to follow the man we might call ‘America Johnson’.

Front cover of UnPresidented by Jon Sopel
UnPresidented by Jon Sopel published in the UK by BBC Books on 14 January 2021. Source: review copy

Both Johnson and Trump’s successors see themselves as the grown-ups clearing up the mess following the toddlers’ birthday parties. Sopel’s introduction to the hardback edition concedes the problem: ‘Let me make one prediction [of Biden’s administration] – journalistically it will be nothing like as story-rich or entertaining’. That in itself is a telling prediction: that an exhausted public would welcome government that presented itself as boring but competent. The distance of time means we know that that has only partially happened: in the US the temperature has barely dropped, and here the UK government is doing its best to stoke the culture war.

We always knew that this would not be the book that Sopel set out to write. The back of the updated paperback edition gives a hint. ‘Fear and loathing on the campaign trail…’ it purrs. And no one is better at fear and loathing than the participants of an American presidential election. But of course, this is a reference to the 1972 classic by Hunter S Thompson which applied the principles of ‘gonzo journalism’ to the genre. It’s fair to say that Sopel expected fireworks. An early tale describes bully-boy behaviour by snarling press aides towards the journalist pack. But all too quickly we are overtaken by the pandemic. We learn a lot about Sopel criss-crossing the globe or delivering interviews from a hotel wardrobe, but have fewer of the spittle-flecked encounters that we were perhaps expecting. 

That’s not necessarily a problem. How many of those sorts of anecdotes do we really need? Perhaps we are all the better for reading Sopel’s attempts to make sense of it all in real time and remembering just how bewildering was the onslaught of the senses. It’s easy to forget just how bizarre the 2020 election campaign became: intertwined with the Trump administration’s chaotic response to the pandemic, layered with lockdown and the strange optics of socially distanced (or not) rallies. Sopel’s diaries will have some historical interest as our memories of that time fade. But in 2023 we have both recent memory and perspective, and as Trump and Biden tease us about a 2024 rematch now is a good time to revisit the thrills, spills and pills of an election like no other.

Thanks to BBC Books for the review copy.

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