Tag Archives: John Heilemann

Double Down: Game Change 2012, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Penguin, 2013, 512 pages, C$31.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-594-20440-1

In an age of twitter-sized text bites, continuous news cycle and fragmented constituencies, there is something to be said for long-form narratives that seek to explain months of events and incidents.  This goes double for attempts to describe something as complex as a presidential campaign.  Following in the footsteps of their vastly entertaining Game Change (which tackled the 2008 presidential campaign, with a focus on the Obama/Clinton primary challenges and the impact of Sarah Palin on the campaign), Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have spent much of 2011 and 2012 following the main players involved in the 2012 American presidential campaign, and Double Down is an attempt to weave what they’ve learned into a coherent narrative.

The biggest problem with the 2012 campaign, of course, is that it was a fairly dull affair: Barack Obama went into the contest with the advantages of the incumbency, while Mitt Romney was seen as the least-objectionable pick from an uninspiring selection of candidates from a Republican party fractured between the older establishment and the extreme tea-partiers.  Save for a lopsided first debate that temporarily upset expectations, the campaign had few dramatic moments.  By the time November rolled around, the only people claiming a close election were media outlets hyping up their viewership number and the Romney campaign itself.  Watching the results at home, I knew enough about the possible swing-states to be able to call the election for Obama roughly three minutes before CNN did.

As a political junkie, I’m the natural audience for a book such as Double Down… even though I spent much of 2012 a step removed from American politics, preoccupied with a brand-new baby at home.  And while I may have opened this review with lofty goals of narrative-making, let’s be honest: I read book such as Double Down to get pieces of gossip, new revelations and an idea of what I’d missed from the usual open sources of information.

As it turns out, Double Down is most interesting when it does delve into what I’d missed: Mostly the early stages of the Republican nomination process, as promising candidates decide (or are strongly encouraged) to sit out the 2012 election cycle.  This, improbably, opened up the field for Romney, who managed to remain the least-terrible alternative after a succession of other would-be nominees flamed out early on.  The look behind the scenes of those failed contenders is often fascinating, and perhaps more affecting than the winning campaigns: I never thought I’d feel a bit of sympathy for Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry, but seeing them struggles with (respectively) debilitating migraines and post-operative back pain is enough to remind you that for all the overheated partisan rhetoric, these are still real people running for office. 

Amusingly, the authors also have to contend with their own precedent in writing Double Down: Parts of Chapter 3 are spent describing the White House’s dealing with the authors, while one of the most hilarious anecdotes of the book has VP nominee Paul Ryan trying to calm down before his major convention speech by watching… the HBO movie adaptation of Game Change, focusing on the shortcomings of his predecessor Sarah Palin.  Fortunately, the book itself is not perceptibly biased, save for siding with the winner and being harsher on the losers: While Obama is criticized for his failings as a contemplative president and as a reluctant candidate, Romney gets worse by being described as a curiously ambivalent candidate, one that maybe didn’t want the presidency enough.

The authors have a knack for creating a compelling narrative (even though their vocabulary often runs wild, along with their tendency toward nicknames or metonymy) and the book is a joy to read, although a good background in American national politics is required before making sense of most details.  Still, it’s worth remembering that Halperin and Heilemann are part of the old-school of journalism.  Never mind the off-handed (and faintly reprobate) mentions of social media (and even, just Twitter –never Facebook!) as if it was just a fringe phenomenon: this mentality leads to a few curious omissions in what is otherwise a complete account of the campaign. 

For instance, while nothing made me smile wider than seeing the author dismiss Ron Paul as a man whose “radical libertarianism, out-front isolationism, and just plain kookiness— from his abhorrence of paper money to his ties to the John Birch Society — made him more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee”, Paul did earn more votes during the primaries than many other candidates described at length during the book.  I suspect that access has to do with this snide dismissal: that is, if the authors were rebuffed by the Paul campaign, then they found nothing interesting to say about him.  Far more troubling is Double Down’s refusal to mention Nate Silver even once.  Silver, as you may recall, was the most visible of the web-based statistical pundits who uniformly predicted an Obama victory, even as the traditional media was still creating a smokescreen of uncertainty over the election.  Also significant is the lack of discussion about the Romney campaign’s ORCA IT problems, which may have led to a false sense of confidence in the final weeks of the campaign in a supposedly data-centric organization.  Those stories were well-covered in the days immediately after the election, and it seems curious that they don’t even rate a mention even as figures who played no part in the election such as Haley Barbour rate pages of anecdotes.  (And let’s not even mention Chris Christie, who should consider sending copies of this book to registered Republicans in anticipation of his 2016 run… or not.)

And this brings us to my original assessment of Game Change, which holds true for Double Down as well: It’s become a quadrennial gossip rag for the political set.  Data, infrastructure, trends and strategy aren’t nearly as important in Double Down as screaming, shouting, money problems and dramatic narration.  That’s to necessarily a bad thing, as long as readers understand that this is political reporting as entertainment.  Insight will come from elsewhere.

Is it any surprise that a movie adaption has already been announced?

Game Change (2012)

(On Cable TV, March 2012) Political junkies will get their fix of gossipy fantasy in this made-for-HBO docu-fictive account of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 American Presidential race as seen from her Republican entourage.  Fans of the original Halperin/ Heilemann book will be surprised to find out that this adaptation barely mentions the Obama/Clinton contest and focuses solely on Palin’s selection and the backroom dealings of the Republican strategists trying to do what they can with an unsuitable candidate.  At its best, Game Change is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a major political campaign as a team of self-aware political professionals has to deal with a wholly unsuitable candidate.  It plays like a mainstream Hollywood comedy in which a half-wit is thrust in a position of importance… except that it really happened, and it happened recently in an American presidential election.  True enough, Palin occasionally comes across in the film as more admirable than her public personae would suggest: a dedicated mom, perhaps a figure to be pitied for having been asked to do more than she ever could.  Still, she really doesn’t come across well here: out of her depth, overwhelmed, petty and of limited capabilities.   The casting is exceptional: Julianne Moore excels in a nearly-perfect take on Palin, whereas Ed Harris has no problem establishing himself as a sympathetic McCain.  Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson turns in a clever performance as strategist Steve Schmidt, the nominal protagonist of the film.  The film is generally well-directed by comedy director Jay Roach and scripted competently, but it does have to work within the constraints of real-world events: The dramatic arc here is slight (especially compared to Obama’s journey) and even understanding that this is a heavily dramatized version of events as they occurred isn’t much of a comfort.  Game Change will appeal to those who remember the 2008 election well, but may not be all that compelling for others.  Which is fine, really: Even political buffs deserve their slick Hollywood entertainment.

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.