(This review is a stop on a “virtual book tour” for the paperback version of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Game Change, an account of the 2008 presidential campaign. My thanks to Trish Collins for inviting Whiskey Fire to participate. Up next on the “tour” is Mr. Rude Pundit, on Wednesday the 15th.)
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change. Harper Perennial. Paperback. $16.99.
Game Change is a shallow and ultimately pointless book, but nevertheless irritating.
The book lacks a thesis, an absence Heilemann and Halperin portentously announce in the first paragraph of their Author’s Note:
The idea for this book arose in the spring of 2008 out of a pair of firm convictions. The first was that the election we had both been following for more than a year was as riveting and historic a spectacle as modern politics has ever produced. The second was that, despite wall-to-wall media coverage, much of the story behind the headlines had not been told. What was missing and might be of enduring value, we agreed, was an intimate portrait of the candidates and spouses who (in our judgment) stood a reasonable chance of occupying the White House.
In other words, what a great story! What a spectacle! What a show! Let's now find out about all the juicy backstage drama, the intrigue, the arguments, the fights, the scandalous fucking! (And yes, there is scandalous fucking, for which we can thank John Edwards and Rielle Hunter. Thanks, idiots.)
Because people love that backstage stuff -- the gossip. They eat it up.
Oh and also this stuff might be of some historical value too, because this is very historical history-stuff, ahem. Politics, you know, what fun.
Which is not to say that gossip can never be of significance; for instance, that Strom Thurmond secretly had a black daughter is a fairly revealing detail about Dixiecrat history. But then again, a detail like that only matters if it adds color to an understanding of Thurmond’s political and cultural class, and how that class was comprised of a bunch of absolute bastards. Clearly, I should hope, nobody is diseased enough to care about Strom Thurmond’s sex life for its own sake.
But why do any of the details in Game Change matter?
Halperin and Heilemann never tell us -- very likely because they consider themselves scrupulous journalists, getting all their facts right and i-dotting and t-crossing and so forth, and as scrupulous journalists, it is not up to them to tell you what anything means as far as how the policies and behaviors of these fascinating “characters” might impact real people. They are after all not partisans.
And fair enough, whatever. But all that means is that they have essentially censored themselves. All they can talk about is the game; they can never judge it.
The most glaring, and annoying, symptom of this absence of anything like an argument is Halperin and Heilemann’s constant featherbrained return to the phrase “game changer,” a cliché dressed up as a profundity. They trot this out all the time, like a mystic invocation of Importance: say the words, and poof! Revelation! Meaning!
Yet the trick never quite works. One may perhaps be somewhat underwhelmed to learn that the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards camps all came to the same conclusion about the Iowa caucuses: “looking back at it, they all agreed: Iowa had been a game changer.” No shit....
The cliché-flogging is not quite as relentlessly awful as what Tom Freidman perpetrates, but it's close. Clinton is down in the delegate count even after winning Texas and Ohio, which prompts the revelation that “for Obama to win the nomination would require a magnum-force game changer,” a sentence that deserves to be shot.
Also impressive is how so much of what is here is already well-known, and was well-known at the time. Heck, for every fact or factoid I learned, there were two or three that for some reason didn't make the cut. David Shuster's sexist snipe at Chelsea Clinton is mentioned; Chris Matthews' sexist swipe at her mother is for some reason unmentioned. Perhaps Matthews' blatherings were not considered significantly game-changey, or something. Who knows.
The reason this "game change" stuff is irritating is that the most blindingly obvious implication of the book is that "the game" – American electoral politics as it presently exists and as the authors depict it – is expensive, wasteful, unproductive, stupid, and, flatly, bad for the country.
The Iowa caucuses, for example, are utterly absurd, detested even by the candidates themselves. The rules are arcane, the process inexplicable, the state small. Its electorate is not representative of the country as a whole. Why Iowans, and not, say, New Yorkers, get to exert potent influence over the national choice of who gets to be in charge of the nukes, is a mystery.
Game Change sheds no light in this regard, but we do discover that an angry John McCain once said to his wife, “FUCK YOU! FUCK, FUCK, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!!!” (The authors assure us that since this is in quotes it is a 100% true real statement, and I believe them.)
Also mysterious is the primary/caucus system as a whole. Why is it valuable to watch sleep-deprived candidates spend vast sums of money telling preposterous lies about themselves and each other via television commercials, at least in terms of rationally deciding who will negotiate weapons treaties or propose tax policy?
It tells us nothing: who wins a nomination or an election is dependent upon a multitude of factors, only a very small range of which are in the candidate’s control. McCain was always doomed, probably; the fact that he behaved like a psychotic ancient baby and gave the VP slot to a venomous dingaling who appeals solely to smug ignorant zealots didn’t help his cause, but the economy would have screwed any GOP candidate.
But that fairly elementary observation is not nearly as much fun as the endlessly rehashed minutiae of the campaigns, the offhand remarks, the "gaffes," the whole tedious litany related here by the authors in ardent detail, especially in their gory account of the Clinton/Obama war. As if it mattered.
Now, don't get me wrong; there is certainly a sense in which that whole awful Klingon opera "mattered." But there is a more important sense in which it didn't.
Halperin and Heilemann's description of what happened after the Wall Street disaster in September is revealing. For them, this was Obama's apotheosis, when he started to be really taken seriously by serious people. For their narrative, the most important of these serious people is Bill Clinton, because they need an arc about the Reconciliation of the Warring Camps.That's good theater!
For people who care about the economy, though, it is more revealing that these Serious People prominently included Rob Rubin, Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke, and Hank Paulson; it is a real feather in Obama's cap that Paulson was impressed by Obama's "sobriety and maturity." Oy.
Nothing's changed, changed utterly; a stifling consensus is reborn. And unemployment goes unaddressed.
Equally disheartening in this regard is the authors' account of Clinton's post-campaign discussion with Mark Penn, whom she inexplicably does not hate for being incompetent and awful and costing her the presidency. More disturbing is that she only demoted and didn't fire him for consulting with the Columbian ambassador during the campaign about getting a trade deal passed that she opposed -- as did labor. Worse than the political malpractice is the message sent about how being inside is apparently more important than the issue; from a progressive perspective, this is galling, not least because the story is so damn familiar.
Most repulsive of all is that, as Haperin and Heilemann mention at several points in the text, many politicians apparently read Maureen Dowd's drivel and take it seriously.
Game Change shows that what we most desperately need right now is to change the game, because that’s what’s killing us. That's not what Halperin and Heilemann set out to prove, but so what? They didn't really set out to prove anything beyond the breathlessly trivial anyway.
UPDATE. To clarify.