Book review of 'Game Change' by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

By Alan Wolfe
Sunday, January 17, 2010


Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Harper. 448 pp. $27.99

During elections, people make judgments about who should hold office. They also make judgments about the journalists who cover the campaigns.

John Heilemann, national political correspondent for New York magazine, and Mark Halperin, editor at large for Time, have been subject to some pretty harsh judgments of their coverage. Both are members in good standing of the "Village," the derisive term widely used in the blogosphere to convey what critics see as the insular and complacent quality of mainstream journalism. Halperin has been dismissed as a "babbling idiot" (Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post), as "hilariously predictable" (Digby of the blog Hullabaloo) and as the author of "the most vapid, smug, and innate commentary that has come out of the Village in a long time" (Jonathan Zasloff, the UCLA law professor who posts at the Reality-Based Community).

The lefty bloggers' basic complaint is that the Washington press corps deals in trivia, reflects conventional wisdom and is all too respectful of the politicians it should be challenging. "Game Change," the new book by Heilemann and Halperin, offers this reviewer a chance to judge the judgers: Are the bloggers on to something, or are they just jealous of the fact that inside-the-Beltway journalists such as Heilemann and Halperin are quite skillful?

At one level, "Game Change" is a familiar retelling of the key moments of a presidential campaign. Compared with the classics of the genre, it more than holds its own. At times, the authors cannot help restating the obvious, as in this strikingly unimaginative sentence: "With his war heroism, famously independent streak, and reformist stances on matters such as campaign finance, McCain's maverick image was sterling."

Yet despite such banalities, they not only tell the story of the 2008 campaign in an engaging and readable way, they come up with some real reporting. Much of that reporting, it must be said, is of the gossipy sort, such as Harry Reid's by-now famous comment about black speech. Still, although I had some sense of the dimensions of the Palin disaster before reading this book, the authors' account of how she failed to prepare for her debate with Joe Biden is chilling: "When her aides tried to quiz her, she would routinely shut down -- chin on her chest, arms folded, eyes cast to the floor, speechless and motionless, lost in what those around her described as a kind of catatonic stupor."

There are also juicy details about the fear that leading Democrats had about Bill Clinton's reputation as a ladies man, as well as the outsize ego and bullying behavior of the seemingly angelic Elizabeth Edwards, who, the authors write, "was forever letting John know she regarded him as her intellectual inferior" and "routinely unleashed profanity-laden tirades on conference calls." I doubt that any other book about the 2008 election will top this one in narrative drive.

For all that, however, "Game Change" inadvertently confirms just how many of our top political journalists really are Villagers, even if, in the case of these two, they live in New York. (Washington -- and especially Georgetown -- is the small town the bloggers have in mind.) For one thing, Heilemann and Halperin write about the campaign as if they were not active participants in shaping it. At one particularly inane moment during the debates, for instance, Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself being grilled over whether illegal immigrants ought to have New York driver's licenses. Compared with terrorism or the coming economic catastrophe, this was not the most burning question. The media focus on this kind of issue is precisely what the liberal bloggers gripe about; surely, they insist, our politics does not have to be this trivial.

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