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

By Alan Wolfe
Sunday, January 17, 2010; B01


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.

Heilemann and Halperin's response? "The press always wants a race. The press always loves conflict." This highlights a problem in the authors' perspective. If they consider themselves part of this press that wants to create a race through their reporting, at the expense of examining the issues, then they share responsibility for trivializing campaigns.

Heilemann and Halperin also purvey a lot of material in stenographic fashion, which only feeds into the complaints of their critics. Joe Biden tells them that he really did not want to be vice president, and they write that down, as if Biden actually was content just to ride Amtrak back and forth to Delaware as a senator. In the authors' account, Biden was not the only one reluctantly drawn into national service: Hillary Clinton worried about her daughter, both Obamas were concerned about Sasha and Malia, and Cindy McCain hated the limelight.

But pretending that one is not all that interested in running for office is now one of the steps a candidate takes in the campaign process. "Game Change" made me wish that political reporters were more skeptical about what candidates feed them. John and Elizabeth Edwards are done for, but these writers tend to treat politicians who have power with kid gloves.

Finally, and most annoyingly, Heilemann and Halperin, while playing down their journalistic roles in the campaign, elevate their contribution as historians of the election. We all know how each World Series is hyped as the greatest ever or how each new winter storm portends a historic blizzard. The subtitle of this book proclaims that the election of 2008 was "the race of a lifetime," a theme repeated throughout the narrative. To be sure, the election took on historic significance because of the nomination of an African American and the candidacies of two prominent women. When it became clear that the Democratic nominee would not be a white male, an important barrier had certainly been broken.

Yet historically significant elections turn on matters of policy, not demographics. The year 2008 might have given us the election of a lifetime because of the economic collapse that accompanied it and the desperate sense around the world that the United States needed new leadership. But while the authors of "Game Change" have much to say about John McCain's dreadful response to the economic crisis, they shy away from any discussion of economics. Nor would one know, after reading this book, that the biggest task facing the winner of the election would be cleaning up the mess left by the people on the way out. To talk about real historical significance would mean addressing matters of substance, and that would violate the chatty inside-dope approach that characterizes Village journalism.

I read the bloggers and, while I admire their energy and commitment, I often find their near-hysteria off-putting. When they write about the Villagers, I detect, if not jealousy, then smugness, as if they believe they could do a better job than the journalists who take home the big bucks. As someone who grew up reading great political reporting, even the kind that produced the classic campaign books of previous years, I wish that all those who scoff about insular and un-self-critical Villagers would be proven wrong. It is too bad that Heilemann and Halperin have proved them, by and large, right.

Alan Wolfe teaches political science at Boston College and is writing a book on political evil.


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