A behind-the-screens account of the 2008 presidential campaign, focusing on Obama/Clinton and the general, giving short thrift to McCain’s primary campaign. The excuse for the latter oversight seems to be that McCain was the presumptive front-runner from the jump; the truth is probably that they weren’t granted access. Palin gets plenty of coverage, of course.
Self-serving campaign bigwigs gave the authors extraordinary access, after the fact, to everything from internal campaign memos to email archives to extended interviews with most of the campaign’s major figures. (You can tell from the quoted dialogue who collaborated with Heilemann and Halperin — it seems the entire Clinton campaign was especially leaky.)
I wanted to know about the internal machinations of the Clinton campaign, to get a sense of what the next few months before the 2016 general election will be like. Turns out they were a disorganized shitshow, riven by factionalism and long-simmering vendettas and uncontainable egos. The Clintons don’t seem to have any idea how to organize such a group of people; presumably as a defense mechanism, Bill and Hillary’s self-pity is (depicted as) boundless, as when Hillary says that that nation faces ‘a terrible choice’ in Obama/McCain.
Hillary comes off the way critics who’ve looked closely at her record have led us to expect: unusually smart for Washington, analytical, cold, brittle (a nerd who’s tasted power), paranoid, an ineffective manager, shorter on principle than her supporters like to think, and — maddeningly — forever devoted to the husband whose serial sexual predations Hillary has clearly (evidently) made a devil’s bargain over. Bill comes off as a talanted sociopath, duh, though Heilemann and Halperin’s gushing over his once-in-a-lifetime political intuition isn’t justified by their own reporting.
The 2008 Clinton campaign, meanwhile, appears to’ve been full of feckless morons and reptiles whose main qualification was/is undying loyalty to the Clintons. The Clinton White House (where HRC was by her own account ‘co-president’) had the same quality. The foibles of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC, which over the last few years has made itself a well-paid arm of the 2016 Clinton campaign, suggest that the same dynamic obtains there even today.
This should worry you, if you’re not a Trump supporter.
Obama comes off as an extraordinarily intelligent, naturally gifted candidate with rare policy chops, unusually high-minded principles, and a freakish ability to learn as he goes — his performance during the 2008 financial meltdown is his crowning achievement. The book also paints him as arrogant and slightly brittle, but those qualities don’t appear to be at all unusual. Perhaps because they (1) helped the authors and (2) ran the White House, Obama’s political/policy people come off extremely well in the book. (I’ve come to believe that several characters on Veep are based on figures in Game Change.)
Biden the goof, appears to be Biden, the goof. He’s one of the few human beings in the book.
McCain’s campaign was also a shitshow, of course. Like Clinton’s, it had no real message other than ‘stay the (neoliberal militaristic) course, pretending to change.’ McCain himself comes off as a reasonably principled but querulous old codger who fell apart as the campaign progressed. His choice of Palin was driven by desperation: McCain’s first choice was Joe Lieberman (Lindsey Graham, who otherwise comes off as a smart serious figure, blew up that pick by flapping his gums), but in a ‘normal year’ he’d’ve settled for Tim Pawlenty; Sarah Barracuda was chosen as a counter to the campaign’s Obama-embodies-change problem. Palin is the book’s most interesting figure: pig ignorant but extraordinarily eager to do good work, a serial liar obsessed with her favorability ratings in Alaska only, a very talented ‘red-light-on performer’ (i.e. able to instantly enter performance mode when the moment hit) who to my eye was suffering from a dangerous mix of postpartum depression and shell shock at the height of the campaign.
I’ve long thought Palin was a common grifter, and Game Change backs up my supposition, though it also suggests that that wasn’t always true — unless she’s a bigger sociopath than Bill Clinton, she was by all accounts an oddly serene (if cagey) true believer who tasted the good life and decided she wanted more, on her terms. I actually like her more after reading. And I like this too: McCain, seeing how hard her job in the campaign was and how desperately she tried (and failed) to do it, refused to say an unkind word about her, even to his own campaign staff (who were, by the way, repulsive). The McCain campaign’s failure to vet Palin — they took less than a week and ended up having to google her name while fielding questions from the press after she was announced as the pick — is one of the most intriguing and disquieting process stories in the book.
So that’s the gossip. (There’s a lot about John Edwards, who by all accounts is a delusional shitheel, and his wife, whom the authors depict as a minor Satan. None of that interests me.)
And gossip is just about all there is, unfortunately, because Game Change, while endlessly fascinating on its own insider-baseball terms, is completely devoid of any detail about anything except the internal machinations of three groups of largely unprincipled, high-functioning rich assholes. The financial crisis gets something like a one-paragraph thumbnail summary, only enough to set the stage for more candidate heroics/follies. Race relations exist only insofar as they pertain to ‘the race card.’ Iraq exists only as a political albatross. Bush is only the political background to the story (the only evaluation of his presidency: whether it was a political liability for McCain).
The characters are smart ruthless predators — or titans bestriding the world like colossi — or tragically flawed stage heroes. Campaigns are staffed by schemers and mad political geniuses and backstabbing Iagos. Journalists are servants of democratic ideals, or victims to be pitied. ‘The Web’ exists only as Obama’s ‘money spigot.’ (‘Special interests’ are not, as I recall, even mentioned.) The universe of the book extends no further than the campaign itself, and the book’s subjects are masters of that universe. The idea that any of them have any moral responsibility or outlook almost never intrudes on Game Change‘s cozy little bubble. Sports metaphors abound. There is not even a hint of irony anywhere to be found.
This is, in other words, the usual sort of Washington hagiography masquerading as incisive journalism. It is evidence of The Problem — Washington’s absolute disconnection from American life.
I recommend the book, which reads like a potboiler and throws some light on the most powerful people in America. But I recommend, also, that its Rolodex-stuffing authors be thrown into the sea with the rest of the steno pool. What they’ve given us, in terms of information about the workings of our democracy, isn’t worth the cost to our republic of letters, which is that every day it becomes impossible to think about political campaigns as anything but expensive TV dramedy miniseries. (Indeed, this book was turned into one. It won some Emmys, too.)
The game didn’t change. The book’s title is a lie. The book — for all the Hard-Hitting Truths it reveals about the people who decide the fate of billions — is perpetuating and selling a lie. You’ll get a real kick out of it.