This weekend, HBO will broadcast a highly promoted dramatization of Game Change – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s novelization of the 2008 presidential campaign. I read the paperback version and am looking forward to seeing the docudrama.
I posted a review of the book on my blog in December 2010 and will extract a few observations here that may (or may not) be relevant to the broadcast (also will repost the full review after the jump for those interested).
Heilemann and Halperin make extensive use of anonymous sources to bolster their claim of an ultimate insider perspective with unique insights into the historic 2008 campaign. I found this conceit exaggerated at best. The claim is easily tested. Bloggers and commenters who were active on this (and other) blogs left a contemporaneous record of what was known and not known about the campaigns from the outside. In my review I endeavor to compare some of the key insider insights claimed by the authors to the record of what was known by those of us on the outside looking in from blogs like this. The ultimate insider vs. the ultimate outsider perspective if you will.
Based on the trailers and promotions, the HBO movie focuses exclusively on John McCain and Sarah Palin, which represent about 4 of the 23 chapters in the book. Sarah Palin is portrayed in an unfavorable light in the book and movie. However, she is not the only high profile woman in the 2008 campaign who is subjected to an unflattering portrait in the book.
Arguably, the late Elizabeth Edwards was given even worse treatment by the authors. One of my complaints about the book is how she was caricatured (quite literally in the case of the NY Magazine excerpt linked above) as a shrill, borderline insane, screaming banshee. If you cut through the novelistic embellishments and compensate for likely self-serving sources, her reported offenses distill down to being obsessed about her husband’s campaign, and occasionally yelling and cursing out the campaign staff. So what?
The portrayal of both women begs the question of sources. In my review I said this:
“It is clear that this book was anonymously sourced primarily by the operatives, campaign staff, aides, and professional politicos who managed the major campaigns. While not all emerged unscathed, to the extent that any sympathetic characters are to be found in Game Change – it is these campaign operatives. Whether they deserve that treatment is another matter. To a large extent, the authors reported their stories, through their eyes, and unsurprisingly, they told stories that made themselves look good. In the process, most of the politicians, candidates, their spouses, and competing campaign staff are made to look bad.
Nowhere is this more obvious or true than in the four chapters distilled into the movie. It is clear from the promotion and early reviews of Game Change The Movie that Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) is the primary source for the four chapters of the book that the movie is based on. Schmidt comments on the movie:
“This was a surreal experience for me,” Schmidt said of the movie, in which he is played by actor Woody Harrelson. “Ten weeks of the campaign are condensed into a two-hour movie. But it tells the truth of the campaign. That is the story of what happened.”
Should we be surprised that the primary source for the book and movie says the book and movie reflect the truth of the campaign? Should we uncritically accept Schmidt’s self-serving version of the story vs. self-serving criticism offered by principals Palin and McCain?
As usual, how one responds probably reveals more about the bias one brings to the story than anything else. For me, my view is unchanged from the time of the selection. McCain was going to lose the election. We were in the middle of an economic crisis and two unsettled wars of unknown cost and unknown outcome all blamed on Republicans. There was no chance for the McCain candidacy outside of exactly this kind of a “game changing” move. It almost worked. In the end, Sarah Palin was not up to the task and failed the “vetting by fire” of intense media scrutiny in a national campaign. The McCain campaign threw the dice because they had to, and it came up snake eyes. The game was not changed by the Palin pick, and neither was the outcome of the election.
They say that history is written by the victors. In the version of history we’ll see in HBO’s Game Change, Steve Schmidt will attempt to turn that axiom on it’s head.
UPDATE: Added some links to pre-broadcast reviews.
NOTE: My original review after the jump. Fair warning: This will come as a surprise to no one familiar with this blog, but it is long and wordy. You’ve been warned. Also, Full Disclosure – I was given the book at no charge to review, so there is the corrupting influence of at least $12 cash value embedded in the review. If they wanted a more favorable review, they should have given me the hardcover. This review was originally posted 12/07/10 on The Dividist Papers. As originally posted, I focused on observations from my blog. This version has been modified and edited slightly to link primarily to Donklephant contemporaneous posts.
The best way to review a book is to read it without preconceived notions. Pick it up, open the cover, dive in and form an opinion without first being influenced by what others think. That was impossible with Game Change. Extensively excerpted before publication, it was widely reviewed in mainstream media, praised and reviled across the blogosphere.
The authors claim to offer a unique inside view of the 2008 presidential campaign. This was a topic of intense interest and the focus of my blogging efforts at The Dividist Papers and here at Donklephant. As such, I entered the world of Game Change lugging a trunkload of preconceived notions.
Carrying that load of baggage, I am not going to approach this review by walking directly through the front door masquerading as an objective reviewer. Instead I’ll just beg The Reader’s indulgence as I circle around back, sneak in through a side entrance and drag all this excess baggage with me.
Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, promises an “insider” perspective informed by two years of hindsight and developed from extensive interviews of anonymous sources close to the 2008 campaigns. By contrast, my perspective of the election was that of an outsider with an agenda trying to understand the meaning, motivations, and in a small way even shape the outcome of the 2008 presidential election from this obscure corner of the blogosphere. Here I noted and commented on many of the strategies, spin, and narratives promoted by the very campaign insiders who were the sources and characters featured in this book. Comparing and contrasting their perspective with mine as documented on this blog is what I found most compelling about Game Change.
First, a note on the books central stylistic conceit, the omniscient narration that makes the book so readable, while simultaneous raising doubts about its credibility. Harper-Collins promoted the book as “a sweeping, novelistic, and ultimately definitive portrait” of the 2008 race. Sweeping? Certainly. Definitive? History will be the judge. Novelistic? Indeed, and there is the rub.
Is a docudrama a documentary? Can a historical novel be history? Game Change is a novelization of the 2008 campaign. In the first paragraph of the first page of the prologue we are confronted with the central dilemma of this narrative choice.
“Barack Obama jerked bolt upright in bed at three o’clock in the morning. Darkness enveloped his low-rent room at the Des Moines Hampton Inn; the airport across the street was quiet in the hours before dawn. It was very late December 2007, a few days ahead of the Iowa caucuses… Obama always slept soundly, like the dead. But now he found himself wide awake, heart pounding, consumed by a thought at once electric and daunting: I might win this thing… as Obama sat there in the predawn stillness, the implications of the events he saw unfolding hit him as never before. He didn’t feel ecstatic. He didn’t feel relieved. He felt like the dog that caught the bus. What was he supposed to do now?”
Barack Obama is alone in his room in a motel in Des Moines – and yet we are treated to every detail of his actions and the very thoughts and emotions inside his head. So… exactly who did Halperin and Heilemann interview to glean these detailed insights? Certainly this paragraph grabbed my attention and drew me into the story – exactly as intended. It also flipped an internal switch of recognition – not as a journalistic report on the election, but rather as a novel.
This is docudrama, and on that level, this book works exceedingly well. When finished, I appreciated the read as a well crafted dramatization of the 2008 campaign. In a new afterword for this paperback edition, the authors defend their journalistic/creative decision:
“Equally perplexing were the qualms in some quarters concerning our reporting methods. From the outset, we knew that if Game Change achieved any substantial degree of success, we would be held to high standards of journalistic integrity and accuracy – and we conduct ourselves throughout the research and writing of the book determined to exceed them. In grating our sources anonymity and rendering the narrative in a omniscient voice, we were doing nothing novel; we were following in a tradition of countless esteemed non-fiction writers.” (P 438)
Perhaps. But I nevertheless found it to be more akin to a novel “based on a true story” than a non-fiction report. Undoubtedly there are truths to be gleaned in these pages, as with any good novel. But when I put the book down, I was not sure whether I should consider it anything more than a page-turning pot boiler.
Rather than considering the value of the narrative on stylistic term, let us take the measure of this book using another scale, one suggested by the authors’ themselves. In the Author’s Note that precedes the prologue the authors explain their purpose:
“We have tried to address the multitude of vital questions that daily journalism (and hourly blogofying) obsessed over briefly and then passed by, or never grappled with in the first place. How did Obama, a freshman senator with few tangible political accomplishments, convince himself that he should be, and could be, America’s first African American president? What role did Bill Clinton actually play in his wife’s campaign? Why did McCain pick the unknown and untested governor of Alaska as his running mate? And who is Sarah Palin, really?”
So by that very standard, did this book succeed? As one of the “blogofyers” of the election, I’ll approach the question on exactly the author’s terms. By directly comparing how the author’s omniscient insider historical “political player” perspective on these very questions compared to my contemporaneous outsider “D-list” blogger perspective.
“How did Obama, a freshman senator with few tangible political accomplishments, convince himself that he should be, and could be, America’s first African American president?”
GAME CHANGE: “Getting to Yes”
Within Obama’s operation, “the options” became a code phrase, a reference to three live possibilities: launching a presidential run, bolstering his stature in the Senate with an eye toward the VP slot in 2008, or returning to Illinois to run for governor—with a presidential bid so far remaining at the bottom of the option pile. (P 32)
Like Obama, the pollsters in the room had been grappling with the issue all year long. Time and again they would hear in their focus groups expressions of unease about Obama’s greenness and his barren résumé. “He’s too new,” people would say. “Why doesn’t he wait fours” “Why doesn’t he just take the vice presidency?” “He doesn’t know about foreign policy.” (P 118)
Powell had his own questions for Obama, but the main one was: Why now? You don’t have much of an experience base, Powell pointed out. You’re new to the Senate, you have an interesting but limited resume from before that. So again, why now? I think I might have what the country needs today, not four or eight years down the line, Obama responded. I think it might be my time. (P69)
He formally launched his campaign six weeks later, on February 10, 2007, on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois… The speech he delivered laid out all of the themes that would carry through 2007 and beyond… “It’s time to turn the page.” (P 74)
MW: (February 11, 2007) (March 8, 2008)
“Barack used the word “generation” at least 12 times in the 20 minute speech. Apparently he is building his campaign on on a foundation of Baby Boomicide. One has to ask – why the generational focus? I submit, that this is a realistic political calculation by a young, self-assured, very smart, very ambitious politician, who understands that his path to the presidency requires a stepping stone as Vice-President. A key element in the selection of any Vice-Presidential candidate, is to identify what constituency they bring to a ticket. From a purely political perspective, it is interesting to ask – Exactly what constituency does Barack Obama bring to a Democratic ticket… Barack can bring a generational constituency, if he can mobilize a demographic block that historically cannot even be bothered to vote, then Barack would be a formidable addition to any Democratic ticket. This is a campaign to capture that constituency and trade it for a spot on the ticket.”
I never believed that Obama considered his run to be a serious effort to win the presidency in 2008. His resume was just too weak. My perspective was exactly the perspective of the focus groups described in the book. I thought this was always a campaign to cross the stepping stone of a vice president role on the way to a presidential run four or eight years hence. But if the peek that the authors of Game Change offer us into the mind of Barack Obama is accurate – he ran only to be president and only to win. The VP role was never the objective. On the question of his motivation, I did not see from the outside what the authors say was in his head. History would indicate they were right.
“What role did Bill Clinton actually play in his wife’s campaign?”
GAME CHANGE: “Two for the Price of One”
“Backstage, Bill paced back and forth, taking their old friend Terry Shumacher about the uphill climb they were facing. We could turn this around if we had the traditional eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire. he said. “I’m just not sure we have enough time” The first-person plural was no slip of the tongue. For a year Hillary had been content to keep her husband at arms length, but now she pulled him close. Nobody knew New Hampshire the way Bill Clinton did…
While Hillary was trying to dance delicately through a minefield of racial sensitivities, Bill was working the remote Western and northern part of the sate. At a townhall meeting at Dartmouth College, he uncorked the argument that he and Penn and been longing to make for a year. Horse voiced and finger wagging, he ripped into Obama’s claim of antiwar purity and the media’s claims of letting those claims go unchallenged…. Give me a break” the former president moaned. “The whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve seen!”…
It was after ten o’clock when the excitement finally washed over the room. The networks had certified Hillary’s win. The candidate came and hugged everyone. “I felt it all day,” she said. Bill boasted how his “fairly tale attack” had been pivotal to the outcome – it had held down Obama’s margins in Hanover. (P 178-189)
MW: (January 30, 2008)
While my allegory in early 2008 did not predict the outcome correctly (I still thought he would wind up as Clinton’s VP), I think it did a pretty good job of picking up on the sense of the race. While the dramatic staging and particulars to be found in Game Change is entertaining, I can’t say that there was anything particularly new about Bill’s role in the campaign that I did not see (at least at a general level) and comment on at the time.
GAME CHANGE: “Pulling Away and Falling Apart”
She thought Obama wasn’t qualified to be commander in chief. And she thought the Republicans would destroy him in the fall, preying on his inexperience and insubstantiality, prying him open and disemboweling him. That morning her campaign had released a new ad in Texas that went direct to those points. Titled “3AM” it was concoction of Penn’s drawn from a script he’d drafted a few day earlier on his laptop in a file called “gamechangers”…
There were sleeping children, the sound of a phone ringing , and a question: When an international crisis hits, who do you want picking up the receiver in the Oval Office? A shot of Hillary, assured and calm, phone to ear, provided the answer; Obama’s name was never mentioned. Even so “3AM” was the first ad the Clintonites had run that challenged Obama’s fitness for office…
After more than a year of battling Obama she’d concluded he was a cipher. In prepping for their debate a week earlier in Cleveland, she had argued with her staff over whether she should call him a “blank slate”. We have to make people understand that he’s not real.” Obama’s vast crowds , his wild-eyed devotees – it was a kind of mass hysteria.” (P 230)
MW (April 7, 2008):
“What is this 3 AM ad really all about? What does the “Clinton is ready on day one” meme really mean? The Clinton campaign code word is “experience”. The McCain campaign uses the same word while the Obama campaign prefers “judgment”. But neither the words “experience” or “judgment” capture the gestalt of that ad or its meaning.
The ad is being repeated because it is effective. It is effective for the simple reason we know exactly what we are getting with a Clinton administration. Net, net – it is not Hillary Clinton’s experience we are talking it about. It is our experience with Team Clinton. We have already experienced eight years of a Clinton administration, and for most Americans, it was a good thing. Even more so in contrast to the subsequent eight disastrous years of the Bush administration. We had more peace, more prosperity, more rationality, better currency, better economy, and a better standing in the world. What’s not to like?
After eight years of the mind numbingly incompetent, anti-intellectual, disingenuous, and incoherent Bush administration, it is easy to be nostalgic for a competent, smart, predictable, and articulate Clinton Redux. Even if it is a team effort. Especially if it is a team effort. And if a little bit of ruthless, cutthroat duplicity is part of the package? I am good with that. A far more dangerous delusion, is that there will be no duplicity in an Obama administration.
In contrast to the Clinton’s, a prospective Obama administration is a cipher. There is simply not enough experience there to see it as anything but an unbreakable code whose meaning is fundamentally unknowable. Now I like Obama. I like the way he talks, and I like the way he thinks. It is easy to feel very good about an Obama presidency. That does not change the fact that no one can know what an Obama presidency will bring. He might be a great president. He might be a disaster.
By the time that 3AM ad ran, I was in full advocacy mode for Hillary Clinton on this blog. I didn’t believe a Republican could win in 2008, and very uncomfortable with turning over the White House to a President with as little executive experience as Barack Obama. Comparing these descriptions, there is little or nothing in the Game Change “insider” account about Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign that I was not seeing reported from the outside at the time. However, the synchronicity of the two accounts, even the similar syntax, does beg an interesting question – Was I simply seeing the same thing as the Team Clinton campaign, or was I so sympathetic to the campaign, that I was simply picking up the messaging of Team Clinton and channeling it on the blog?
“Why did McCain pick the unknown and untested governor of Alaska as his running mate?
GAME CHANGE: “Sarahcuda”
“The plan was always for McCain to shock the world his vice-presidential pick. For weeks his top advisers had been dreaming and scheming., touching bases and laying groundwork, secretly readying an announcement at once unconventional, unexpected, and unprecedented, which would throw the press and both parties for a loop and redraw the political map. The surprise that McCainworld intended to spring was a running mate named Joe Lieberman.
But then something happened on the way to the Republican convention in St. Paul – and presto chango, there was Palin. McCainworld’s core conviction was that McCain’s VP choice had to be a game changer. The campaign assumed… the three quarter of the electorate who were telling pollsters the country was on the wrong track and blaming the GOP would punish McCain at the polls. If McCain’s running mate selection didn’t fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race, it would be lights out.
That Sunday, August 24… Schmidt and Davis then placed a new option on the table: Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin’s name had been on the longest of the long lists, but that was it. Davis told McCain that if he wanted to consider the governor of Alaska, he needed to phone here that night and ask her if she’d be willing to be vetted – and arrange to meet with her, pronto. McCain was impassive, but agreeable. “I’ll call her.” he said… On the evening of Wednesday, August 27, three days after McCain phoned Palin, she arrived at the airport in Flagstaff, Arizona…
Culvahouse spoke to McCain by phone. Overall the lawyer was impressed with how Palin handled herself, but he advised McCain that, compared to the alternatives, there were more potential landmines with Palin. “What’s your bottom line?” Mc Cain asked. “john, High risk, high reward,.” Culvahouse said. ” You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk taker all my life.”…
… although McCain didn’t know much about Palin, what he knew, he liked. She reminded him a lot of himself: the outsider’s courage, the willingness to piss all over her party . (He loved that she’d taken on that pork-barreler Ted Stevens, whom he despised.) He saw in Palin a way of seizing back and amplifying his own message of change – real change, not the bogus Obama version. “Trust your gut, John.” Cindy told him, and McCain knew that she was right. McCain walked up to the deck outside his cabin, where Palin was waiting, and offered here the job.”
MW: (August 26, 2008) ; (August 29, 2008) ; (August 31, 2008)
Back and Blogging
Biden will help give Obama credibility and he will be a very effective campaigner for Obama. However, the choice does leave McCain an opportunity to make a play for disgruntled Clinton supporters by selecting a woman for VP. There are plenty of good choices, Whitman, Fiorina, Hutchison, or my favorite – Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. It would be a smart move, but I doubt he will take my advice this time.
First, I never believed McCain would do this. But I am glad he did. Now, we have the potential of a real race. Palin could very well turn out to be a mistake. She could easily wilt under the kleig light glare of a national campaign. She may indeed have been inadequately vetted, which just means the real vetting is going to take place by the American people between now and the election. Which, by the way, is exactly how Obama was vetted during the primary season. McCain may indeed have made a rash decision, and she may prove to be a disaster to his campaign. But with a conventional Republican white bread choice, McCain was going to lose this anyway. Now the Republicans have a chance.
Elections are the only vetting process that matters. Obama clearly did not/does not have enough experience to justify becoming President based on his resume alone. However, he put himself in the spotlight of a campaign in front of the American people and convinced them (at least the Democrats) that he is ready to be President. That is the way Democracy works. He overcame his deficient resume with the voters. If selecting our leaders was only about resume, we would not need elections.
Sarah Palin will now go through the same process. Her resume is not appreciably better or worse than Obama’s. But she will now have to pass muster under an intense media glare in a campaign pressure cooker over the next two months. Then voters will decide if she is qualified to be VP with a resume no better that Obama’s. I don’t know how she’ll do. I hope she does well. We’ll see.”
The narrative in Game Change relating the details of exactly how Sarah Palin was plucked from relative obscurity to find herself standing on a grand political stage next to John McCain is fascinating. However, I found little or nothing in the book about the rationale, the potential risk and reward, or even the likelihood of inadequate vetting for the Palin pick that was not already in the public discourse at the time and discussed on this blog. New details and a compelling narrative? Yes. But as far as any previously unknown revelation or insight into the decision or the process that was not apparent at the time? I didn’t see it.
“Who is Sarah Palin, really?“
I am not going to quote anything from my blog on this question. First I don’t think I’ve ever tried to answer this particular question, and moreover, I’m not even sure what it means. In 2008, as a sitting governor with a good handle on energy issues, I thought she could help McCain get elected, and with four+ years as VP, grown into a potential presidential role (Actually, I initially thought the same thing about Obama as related above).
Now – after having quit as governor, and capitalizing on the unrelenting media obsession by becoming a media star, I don’t think that path remains open to her. Frankly I think she far prefers the new path she has cut for herself. She is playing the hand she was dealt, and playing it well.
That said, I don’t know that Game Change answered that question either. They do offer a number of interesting anecdotes and observations – here one from the original publication, and another from the new Afterword:
“Seconds in Command”
The truth was, the McCain people did fail Palin. They had, as they promised, made her one of the most famous people in the world over-night. But they allowed her no time to plant her feet to absorb such a seismic shift. They were unprepared when they picked her, which made her look even more unready than she was. They banked on the force of her magnetism to compensate for their disarray. They amassed polling points and dollars off of her fiery chrisma, and then left her to burn up in the inferno of public opinion” (P 415)
“With the exception of Obama himself, no one underwent a greater life change after the 2008 election than Sarah Palin. In July 2009, she abruptly quit the Alaska governorship, claiming cryptically that “only dead fish go with the flow,” thereby trading in endless battles her state’s legislature and series of expensive lawsuits for a glamorous career as a well-paid speaker, bestselling author, Fox News commentator, and Republican royalty-maker. Though Palin resisted immersing herself in the serious policy issues about which her lack of knowledge remains her greatest weakness, if she aspires to the presidency, she has kept her had in politics with cleverly timed endorsements and frequent flash communications to her fans through Twitter and Facebook. Even as polls have shown that majorities of Americans doubt her qualifications to serve in the Oval Office, she towers over every other Republican figure as a media magnet and rallier of the conservative base.” (P440)
True and True. Well written and cleverly phrased. But if assessed against the objective the authors themselves set out to accomplish – to “address the vital question of… who is Sarah Palin?” – and to do so in a manner that was not addressed by contemporaneous media or bloggers at the time of campaign? A shot and a miss.
Perhaps others are finding something new and revelatory in these pages. I did not.
Look, the book is an enjoyable read, and well worth the investment in time and money for this new paperback edition. I recommend it. But in terms of the standards that the authors set for themselves, the book fails.
Finally, I cannot conclude this review without commenting on one tawdry and unforgivable aspect of the book – the treatment of Elizabeth Edwards.
It is clear that this book was anonymously sourced primarily by the operatives, campaign staff, aides, and professional politicos who managed the major campaigns. While not all emerged unscathed, to the extent that any sympathetic characters are to be found in Game Change – it is these campaign operatives. Whether they deserve that treatment is another matter. To a large extent, the authors reported their stories, through their eyes, and unsurprisingly, they told stories that made themselves look good. In the process, most of the politicians, candidates, their spouses, and competing campaign staff are made to look bad.
An artifact of the authors reliance on these sources is that the book often comes across as catty, petty, cynical and mean spirited. Nowhere more so than with Elizabeth Edwards. I won’t excerpt the offending parts here, you can read them in the New York magazine article.
Now I didn’t know her, I didn’t know anyone who knows her, and I don’t know what she was like to work for or with. That said, this is a woman who was working in the pressure cooker of a presidential campaign while dying of cancer and learning that the idealistic political crusader that she thought she was married to was, in fact, an empty suit and a narcissistic, lying, cheating shyster.
The book portrays her as a shrill, borderline insane, screaming banshee. If you cut through the novelistic embellishments and compensate for likely self-serving sources, her reported offenses distill down to being obsessed about her husband’s campaign, and occasionally yelling and cursing out the campaign staff. Poor babies.
In the timeframe covered in the book Elizabeth Edwards is confronting the end of her marriage, her dreams and her life during the course of a presidential campaign. She deserved a more sympathetic and fair treatment. To that end, I’ll leave her the last word – her last public words – a message she published on facebook as I wrote this review:
” You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. There are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.”