Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

An unpleasant sensation comes across you while reading Game Change, journalist John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s breathless account of the seemingly endless 2008 election. It isn’t so much the mind-numbing cavalcade of staged events and all the back-room wheeler-dealing — that’s par for the course with this kind of forensic pundit reportage.

It also has little to do with the authors’ dire, irritating need to pretend they can get inside the candidates’ heads, though that certainly doesn’t help matters any. The creepy-crawly feeling you get after reading about yet another war room session where image and sell points are focus-grouped and retriangulated six ways to Sunday has more to do with this simple, plaintive question: These were the options for who we were going to choose as leader of the free world? To paraphrase Lewis Black, if this is evolution, then by 2016 we’re going to be voting for plants.

Heilemann and Halperin state up front that all of their interviews were conducted on deep background, as “this was essential to eliciting the level of candor on which a book of this sort depends”. In case you are wondering, “a book of this sort” is author-speak for juicy tell-all with lots of easily quotable, “He said what?!” moments, those tidbits that perennial buzz-seekers like Heilemann and Halperin live on. The deep-background, don’t-worry-I-won’t-name-you approach certainly gives the book what its authors crave, but it also lends the finished product an unshakeable sort of nagging doubt, leaving you wondering exactly how much of all this is true.

Game Change begins, as it ends, with Barack Obama. In a hyperbolically described scene, Obama lies in a Des Moines hotel bed, heart racing and sleepless at the prospect that he might actually win this election. From this prologue, the book hops back in time to 2004, when Hilary Clinton was one of the most powerful members of the Democratic establishment, helping to raise money for Obama’s Senate seat. It’s a small irony, but by no means an uncommon one, given the primacy of money (somebody has to pay for all those TV ads and focus groups), even likely rivals have to play the stump-for-me game, as long as they’re in the same party. Afterwards, the authors describe the step-by-step process by which these two putative allies would come to engage in political bloodsport all across the nation, even neither candidate ever seem quite clear as to why exactly they were going through with it.

This question, the great Why?, is most screamingly apparent in the authors’ take on John Edwards, whose image gets a real shellacking here in a series of vignettes that play like a bad joke. Even though it was long clear that Edwards was putting on an act, pretending to be more humble than one actually is has been de rigueur for politicians as long as they have existed. But the extent to which Edwards took his celebrity-selfish behavior is still quite disturbing. For all his vaunted concern about health care and poverty, there’s little indicated in this book that any issue Edwards spoke about during the campaign was anything more than a talking point. There was a reason, after all, that Edwards got so much flak for those $400 haircuts. As Heilemann and Halperin write:

[Edwards’ staff] were astonished by the narcissism that seemed to have infused their candidate. Distraught and dispirited, too. But for a long time, they continued slaving in the service of the illusion at the core of Edwards’ political appeal: that he remained the same humble, sunny, aw-shucks, son of a mill worker he’d always been. The cognitive dissonance was enormous, sure, but they were used that. Because for years they’d been living with an even bigger lie — the lie of Saint Elizabeth.

It isn’t going to far to say that the authors take glee in their dismantling of the aura that had been erected around Elizabeth, that of the long-suffering decent woman who suffered through cancer only to be rewarded with a wayward husband who seemed worse at keeping his peccadilloes secret than Bill Clinton. This sort of glee is understandable, particularly given their report that:

[Edwards’ staff felt] there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing. What the world saw in Elizabeth: a valiant, determined, heroic everywoman. What the Edwards insiders saw: an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.

Regardless of whether Heilemann and Halperin’s portrayal of John and Elizabeth as vapid gigolo and Lady Macbeth is true (and the bullet points that have come out about The Politician, the new tell-all by Edwards’ disturbingly loyal aide Andrew Young, point to yes), it’s difficult to wonder whether or not there is another agenda at play here.

For one, it is difficult to tell whether the authors care at all about what exactly each candidate means to bring to the national debate. Although glancing mention is made here and there about policy, this is a book much more interested in the play-by-play — it’s a book about the how, not the why. To be sure, that sort of strategic obsession is the lingua franca of our nation’s punditocracy, who invite the likes of Heilemann and Halperin on their shows for just that sort of Monday-morning-quarterbacking.

Game Change takes this sort of thing to another level. When the book finally gets around on p. 411 to delivering a stinger about Obama on this point (“what Biden quickly discovered was that Obama’s policies were awfully thin, not terribly specific, more rhetoric than substance”) even such a damning charge as that is foregrounded by Biden’s supposed concern about his “brand”, which was “about substance, about truthtelling”. At this point, it’s fair to suspect that in fact it’s not all the politicians discussed here who are this cynical, it’s actually the authors.

Besides their cynicism, it’s possible also that the authors have an issue with women. The terms used to describe Elizabeth Edwards (“paranoid”, “crazywoman”) echo with the book’s description of Hilary Clinton as a vengeful attack-droid, using the same tone of raised-eyebrow and borderline-misogynist distaste that colored conservative commentary about her in the ’90s. While the depiction of “Hilaryland” (Heilemann and Halperin’s term for Clinton’s closed-circuit of dysfunctional advisers) jibes with numerous other reports, the vehemence of the book’s assault on her is nevertheless notable. Needless to say, Sarah Palin doesn’t come off too well, either, but that can hardly be blamed on the authors.

Just about none of the candidates profiled in this book seem capable or sane enough to run a city council, much less the United States of America. The one exception to this rule is Obama, who appears in this book as a preternaturally calm sort of candidate. Even given the relentless pressures of 24-hour electioneering for months on end — and Heilemann and Halperin certainly do well at capturing the blurred-eye sensation of the eternal campaign — he doesn’t appear to have been the sort to blow up at or play mind games with staffers, and seems in fact like a fairly decent boss overall.

Contrasted to the sniping and chaos that the book reports as being an everyday thing for Clinton, Edwards, and McCain (when they bother to mention the old man, that is, as the Republican ticket is a distinct afterthought here), Obama’s campaign is presented as a coolly and smoothly engineered piece of work, just the kind of machinery one would want to see set up in the West Wing. If the book’s take on the 2008 candidates is to be believed, though, Obama’s being the most leader-worthy of the pack is faint praise, indeed.

Although Obama’s portrayal dovetails with those of his other chroniclers, it’s hard to believe that Heilemann and Halperin really have their finger on the pulse of what made the candidate tick. This is clear in one scene where the authors invent internal dialogue to dramatize Obama’s thoughts at a critical moment, a cheap trick that becomes more obnoxious as the book wears on. According to them, this gifted orator and delicately nuanced writer was thinking, “And I ain’t running… to be a respectable second”.

Game Change is gripping in its own, nonfiction, airport-thriller kind of way. Lightly presented and filled with glib generalizations and cheap shots, this is political reporting as melodramatic beach read. The authors certainly give good quote, like James Carville’s quip about Clinton’s people being “joyless misanthropes who loved neither politics nor people”, or when McCain supposedly wondered aloud to Lindsey Graham, “why would I want to be the leader of a party of such assholes?” But readers wanting to know what really happened in the 2008 election and what it meant for the nation should look elsewhere.

RATING 5 / 10