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Review: Game Change by Heilemann and Halperin

Heilemann, John, and Mark Halperin. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

Kindle: $9.99
Paperback: $16.99
Hardcover: $27.99
Audio: $26.45

"This [expletive] would be really interesting if we weren't in the middle of it" —Barack Obama, September, 2008 (Kindle location 6590)

If you're a longtime This Lamp reader, you know that I don't cover politics much anymore. When I first started my blog, back in 2003, I intended political analysis to be a regular feature in the midst of other topics. But I've found that politics is often so divisive that I've chosen in most instances to steer clear and remain mostly apolitical on this site. In fact, this review is the 70th post I've written since moving my blog to WordPress, and today, I actually had to create the "Politics" category.

Following this week's election, I can sympathize with you if you're absolutely sick of politics—who isn't? However, if you can push party loyalty aside for a moment, I'd like to recommend, Heilemann and Halperin's extremely fascinating Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. Truth be told, the name John Edwards ought to be part of that title, too, since he is a significant "cast member" in the book, but obviously, the title was too long already.

The book focuses on the 2008 United States presidential election and the campaigns and events leading up to it. One of the key themes explored in the book relates to the "unexpected" nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate. If anyone had been making predictions for the 2008 Democratic nominee anywhere from 2004 to 2007, Hillary Clinton would have been the assumed choice.

Of course, I don't believe Hillary Clinton is electable (I also didn't think McCain was electable), and according to Heilemann and Halperin, neither did a number of key members of the Democratic party. Concerned with Clinton's uncertain chances of winning had the Republicans nominated a younger and more charismatic individual, these key Democrats, who were publicly offering their support for Clinton, were maneuvering in the background to find someone else who was not only charismatic, but also had less historical "baggage" (read baggage as concern over what new scandals Bill Clinton might bring to the White House).

It would be many months before the Clintons gained any awareness of the incipient betrayal of Hillary by her colleagues in the Senate. And then it would hit them like a ton of bricks in the their psychic solar plexus. The Clintons saw themselves as the party's de facto First Family. As the patrons of two generations of Democratic politicians for whom they'd raised stacks of cash, providing aid and comfort on the path to prominence. As the only Democrats in recent memory who had demonstrated a consistent capacity to win national elections. As revered and beloved figures. They were blind to the degree of Clinton fatigue in their world and deaf to the conspiracy of whispers. They had no idea how fast the ground was shifting beneath their feet (Kindle location 758-763).

Heilemann's and Halperin's writing throughout the book remains lively with vivid imagery as seen in the paragraph above ("psychic solar plexus," "deaf to the conspiracy of whispers"). The book is very much a page turner because even if you vividly remember the election from two years ago, you don't know it in this kind of detail. John Heilemann, national political correspondent and columnist for New York magazine, and Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine, based this book on over 300 private interviews of the persons involved in the campaigns of the chief figures of the book.

There have been criticisms that perhaps Heilemann and Halperin went too far, that perhaps they betrayed too many confidences in writing this book. I cannot answer that criticism, but I can say I've never felt like I had more of an inside view of a significant historical event than before reading this book. When I first heard of Game Change, I thought it would probably come across as the kind of sensationalistic yellow journalism one finds in supermarket tabloids. But it really doesn't read that way at all. Well...for the most part it doesn't. Whether I really needed to know that John McCain liked to participate in daily briefings in his boxers is questionable, but overall, the book does not spend a lot of time on that kind of information.

Game Change contains no footnotes which has raised some eyebrows, but at the same time, there's been very little said to counter its claims. Sarah Palin has said that if someone wants to really know the truth about her campaign with McCain, her book Going Rogue tells the whole story. Yet, I have not heard from her any specifics for which she disagrees with what was described in Game Change. This is also the book that led to Harry Reid apologizing for remarks that he made theorizing Obama was electable because he was "light skinned."

If you feel strong emotional bonds to any of the politicians in the 2008 presidential election, this book is not for you. No one comes out all that clean. Obama probably comes out the best in the book, but his lack of experience is fully explored. Hillary comes off a bit paranoid, and her husband mildly racist at times. McCain seems quite eccentric and quirky (and a bit of a potty mouth as are most in the book) and Palin, quite a bit in over her head. John Edwards comes across as a bit of an egomaniac at times with ambitions far beyond both his abilities and his morals.

Really, though, do politicians ever come out squeaky clean? Do any of us come out spotless if someone is given an insider view?

When the story in Game Change narrows to the two primary candidates, Obama and McCain, two positive aspects of their character caught my attention. While there were certainly a few jabs back and forth, the rhetoric between McCain and Obama never reached anywhere near the negativity and ugliness of the recent 2010 elections. In 2008, McCain was quick to defend Obama against accusations by his supporters that Obama was a Muslim or un-American. I wish we had that kind of magnanimous spirit among more politicians these days.

McCain was also unwilling to criticize his running mate although many of the members on his campaign team were doing just that, and in some cases, leaking statements to the press. In the end, I, like a lot of people, believe Palin was a major factor in McCain's loss, and there are hints in the book that he was aware of problems with Palin. But whether McCain regretted choosing Palin as his running mate, I have no idea. He certainly never voiced that opinion if he did come to privately regret his decision.

As for Obama, his campaign seemed to be more difficult when he was running against Hillary Clinton for his party's nomination than when he was running against McCain for the presidency. There were obvious hard feelings felt by the Clintons toward Obama, evidenced not just in the primaries but also in the begrudging eventual and seemingly half-hearted endorsement that Clinton finally gave to her former rival.

Thus, it is all the more amazing that Obama asked Clinton to be his Secretary of State. The book reveals that she turned him down multiple times, and he all but begged her to be part of his cabinet. She would have been easy to write off and ignore, but he took a higher road and deferred to her greater knowledge of the political system and experience with world affairs. The book ends with this banding together of two formal rivals

Again, if you are a strong loyalist to any of these individuals, or even if you have an insurmountable hatred for one or more of them, this may not be the book for you. However, if you can push aside your political predispositions and look at 2008 as a most amazing year in the political history of our nation, I highly recommend Game Change as a most fascinating read.

I read Game Change in the Kindle app on my iPad, but it is also available in paperback, hardcover, or audio formats. Click link below.

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Reader Comments (2)

There's an excellent reason why the rhetoric between Obama and McCain never reached a "level of ugliness." McCain has long been a Republican In Name Only, which is why his concession speech on Election Night 2008 carried such a huge overtone of relief.

The real contrast was between Obama (who has never run anything) and Sarah Palin, who effectively administered Alaska until roughly 80% of her time had to be taken up with legal defense due to a ridiculous loophole in the state's laws allowing absurdly puffed-up lawsuits against her based on nothing. If it's "over your head" to be the governor of a state that's a huge challenge to govern at any time, well - fine, she was over her head.

In actual fact, Sarah was the only one of the four standard bearers running for office who had ever governed or run anything. And suddenly now she's the only one of the four who can consistently fill virtually any venue where she speaks; just check it out for yourself. Hers is the bright future, not that that of the other three.

November 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Decker

Palin didn't have a lot of experience dealing with national issues. Alaska is an idiosyncratic state. I do think she was a little in over her head. But the ridiculous caricatures of her, out-of-context statements, and deliberate misinterpretations of relatively innocent or perfectly reasonable comments make me give her the benefit of the doubt almost anytime I see her criticized. The track record of her opponents is so poor that I never assume anything negative about her anymore even if it's reported in a mainstream news article. They've lost any credibility on her.

I don't think she was the reason for McCain's loss, though. Leaving aside issues about why people who liked Obama liked him and so on, there's one scientific way to determine exactly which people got Obama the win. There were people who voted for Bush who didn't vote at all, and there were people who don't normally vote who voted for Obama. The former group was conservative enough to like Palin but didn't like McCain. She didn't hurt him there. The latter group was independent or on the left but usually disillusioned, and many of them were black and/or attracted to the idea of making history by electing the first black president. Palin didn't really do any damage with them either, because the alternative for them was not voting, and the reason they voted was not to do with preventing her from being V.P. From fairly scientific study of who won Obama the White House, there's hard data showing that these groups were sufficient to put him over the top. Any effect she had was, I would conclude, not determinative in the election. In fact, it might have helped McCain a little by removing some non-votes and reassuring conservatives about McCain. Most people who wouldn't like her were already decided against McCain because of Obama and their attraction to him. There were votes that decided against McCain because of her, but they seem not to have affected the outcome of the election in terms of who won. That's what all the number-crunching statisticians have been saying, anyway. It's the political pundits who make judgments not based on such data who have thought otherwise.

November 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Pierce

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