Game Change, John Heilemann & Mark Halperin

Harper, 2010, 448 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-173363-5

If politics is showbiz for ugly people, then Game Change is its quadrennial gossip rag, dishing saucy un-sourced dirt on the celebs of the field.  Nominally a behind-the-scenes exposé of the events leading up to the 2008 US presidential elections, Game Change thus follows in the footsteps of an entire political non-fiction sub-genre, the “Making of a President” campaign memoir based on candid anonymous interviews (in this case: 300 of them, the authors claim) and released well after the events.  By purporting to offer a look behind the political high point of 2008, it’s definitely a book aimed at political junkies who can recall just about every mini-scandal of the campaign.  But it also offers a portrait of the candidates that’s often quite different from their stage-managed podium personas, or the superficial media coverage that passes for political news in the US.

After a dramatic prologue set the night of the Iowa caucuses, Game Change really begins four years earlier, with the fallout of the Bush/Kerry contest and the election of a young senator named Barack Obama.  Running for president isn’t something done on a whim, and the book documents how Obama and Hilary Clinton each come to the conclusion that they would be running for president in 2008.  This sets up more than half of the book: as observers of the 2008 campaign remarked, some of the most interesting moments of the year happened during the Democratic party nomination process as the old-guard faithful to Clinton slowly came to realize the potential of Obama, and how Obama’s strategy gradually chipped away at the perceived inevitability of Clinton’s nomination.  This rivalry, often far more intense than the one opposing Obama to Republican candidate John McCain, ends up being part of the book’s conclusion –which closes on Clinton’s decision to accept the post of Secretary of State after almost rejecting it.

In-between, well, we get it all: John Edward’s abrupt fall from grace following an infidelity scandal, Sarah Palin’s embarrassing rise to national prominence, McCain’s impulsive decision-making, Joe Biden’s gaffes, views from the campaign staffers (many of whom hate each other), private doubts and poignant vignettes.  Heilemann and Halperin reconstruct pivotal moments, give internal monologue to their characters and try to contextualize events in the vast flow of information that every campaign generates.  Some stuff falls by the wayside (“Joe the Plumber” is never mentioned, for instance), but much of the book is an instant-replay of 2007-2008 American politics, with added revelations of what the people involved were thinking at the time.

Naturally, everyone gets dirtied along the way.  Hilary Clinton’s bad management skills account for part of her campaign’s failure, including her husband Bill’s unhelpful contributions.  Sarah Palin’s awful reputation is bolstered by even-stranger episodes of her practically turning catatonic on the campaign trail (“They began discussing a new and threatening possibility: that Palin was mentally unstable” [P.401]).  Surprisingly, though, it’s not Palin who suffers the most from Game Change’s revelation as much as John Edwards and his wife: While he’s portrayed as a candidate whose self-entitled narcissism ends up with self-immolation (after ignoring repeated interventions by his staff), Elizabeth Edwards is revealed not as the quasi-sainted figure of cancer survivor legend, but as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman” [P.127]  To think that Edwards was once a viable candidate is to fully appreciate the bullet dodged by American voters.

In the same vein, it’s probably not an accident if the only ones who emerge from Game Change with their reputation intact are Barack and Michelle Obama.  Sure, there’s a sense that history is written by the winners; but there is also sufficient evidence that Obama’s already-legendary calm behaviour made converts out of many sceptics, including the Clintons.  In discussing the impact of the September 2008 financial crisis on the campaign, the authors conclude that “The crisis atmosphere created a setting in which [Obama’s] intellect, self-possession, and unflappability were seen as leaderly qualities.” [P.393].  Sure, the new President is quoted (even on the book’s flap-jacket!) as being quite a bit more profane than we would expect –but that’s the kind of thing that only erupts in a scandal if there’s a microphone present.

Some scepticism is in order, obviously: un-sourced interviews are all about axe-grinding and selective memories.  But much of what is in Game Change is just elaboration on known themes.  Those who read the November 2008 Newsweek special edition on the campaign already knew quite a bit about the dynamics confirmed here.  It also turns out that bloggers at the time had a pretty good handle on the Obama strategy.  Much of what Game Change does is to confirm rumours that few people were willing to acknowledge at the time.  Significantly, as the book is being read and picked apart by highly knowledgeable participants in the events described, there doesn’t seem to have been any detailed challenges to the factual accuracy of the book: In fact, a mini-scandal about Harry Reid’s off-the-cuff remarks reported in the book occurred because the quote was true.

But what we get in exchange for this murky lack of sourcing is a picture of the politicians as human beings: It’s fascinating to peek at the personalities involved, the rivalries and friendships between political figures that would never even hint at their true feelings while there’s still a chance that they may run for office again.  The extraordinary nature of Obama’s win is never more obvious when considering the way that he was casually dismissed as an unworthy opponent early on by the Clinton and their allies.  (It’s no exaggeration to say that Clinton and McCain got along better together than either of them did with Obama.)  Meanwhile, we also get an idea of the considerable toll that presidential campaigns can take on candidates, who have to rush from one event to another for months before even getting the nomination of their party.  Though it amounts to cliché, families are never too far away from their minds.

Game Change also offers a credible answer to the increasingly pertinent question of whether books are still needed at a time of always-on cable shows, blog commentary and Twitter feeds.  The authors manage to squeeze out and contextualize quite a bit of material that would be impossible to grasp from short and frequent updates: They can look at the big picture, and form a narrative about the events.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie adaptation at some time or another.

It helps a lot that Game Change is an absolute joy to read.  Readers without the political junkie gene may beg to differ, but I read every page with rapt attention, slowing down my usual reading speed to be sure to catch every line.  The authors know how to structure their narrative in dramatic ways, and their smooth prose style makes it easy to flash back to the news of the time.  Of course it’s a book that rewards political trivia knowledge.  Yet it’s also one that offers a lot more than discussions of policy and polls.  It may be a package of gossipy hearsay, but gossip has the advantage of dealing with human beings.  If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that as the TV news show us nothing more than crafted sound-bites without the benefit of context, the people saying those lines have lives of their own.  We’ll never know the true story as it occurs, but Game Change does manage to explain a lot about the crazy, cool, unprecedented and unique 2008 US presidential campaign.

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