Culture

Hardly a game changer: Juicy account of ’08 presidential race seems better suited for the screen

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Chuck Twardy

Great game, huh?

That 2008 election might have been the best we’ve ever seen. Scrappy rookie team trounces the all-stars. Breathtaking plays, heartbreaking turnovers. The frenzied pace kept officials on their toes, but they got the big calls right. Weary of Bill, they penalized Hillary, making her “inevitability strategy” quite evitable. Leery of “Sarahcuda,” they flagged McCain for illegal formation just as the economy was starting to tank. Obama got called for excessive self-regard a couple of times, but always managed to pull off the right plays.

Hand it to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin—authors of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime—and the rest of what they sweetly still call “the press corps,” because it actually played like the politics of our country adequately reported. Oh, we might have known a bit more about what was going on in the locker rooms and luxury suites—you know, while it was happening and might have made some difference—but then it wouldn’t have been much of a game.

While the teams were still fighting for field position, Halperin wrote an op-ed for the New York Times renouncing Richard Ben Cramer’s argument, from his account of the 1988 race, What It Takes, that the campaign is the correct measure of the candidate. It’s hardly Cramer’s fault, Halperin conceded, but the results have been less than sterling. “In the face of polls and horse-race maneuvering, we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all. We should examine a candidate’s public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance. But what might appear simple to a voter can, I know, seem hard for a journalist.”

The Details

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
Two stars
By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
HarperCollins, $28
Amazon: Game Change

No doubt. The game’s the very heart of political reporting. At some point, though, the metaphor fails. For reporters are also players, working their counterparts on the candidate squads for angles and access, negotiating what is reported and what is withheld. And because little is sourced in Game Change, you find yourself wondering how much Halperin, editor-at-large at Time, and Heilemann, columnist/correspondent for New York, knew during the race.

You wonder what anyone knew. “[John] Edwards was regarded as a shallow, callow pretender by virtually every one of his former colleagues,” Game Change reveals. It also peels away “the lie of St. Elizabeth.” Long before either cancer or Rielle Hunter struck, Elizabeth Edwards was one spiteful spouse. Well, Democrats who were unsure about an untested young senator and wary of what Halperin and Heilemann call “Clintonworld,” might have wanted to hear more about John Edwards. Specifically, that he was a jackass, and they’d best look elsewhere for an economic populist.

What’s worse, Game Change leaves a few holes unfilled. It recounts tales of hubris, dissension and diffidence in the Clinton campaign, and of Bill Clinton’s disastrous freelancing, but never makes it clear whether Hillary Clinton lost the nomination or Barack Obama won it. The authors note in passing that as Obama’s campaign began to prevail, black leaders who’d supported Clinton started switching sides: “She understood their position, the pressure they were under, the threats (which the Clintons kept hearing about) that they would be hit with primary-election challenges if they didn’t toe the Obama line.” Really? Whose threats? Could we hear more about that, please?

Maybe that wasn’t part of the story. It turns out a campaign is not so much a game as a Robert Altman film about one, a montage of competing story lines. So it’s no surprise to learn, via Politico, that HBO has optioned Game Change. Look for the scene in which Bluetoothed McCain aide Steve Schmidt walks his dog while selling his candidate on a comeback “narrative arc.” Cut to a medium shot of Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, after the emergence of Sarah Palin, grousing unawares for an MSNBC mic: “I think they went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives. Every time the Republicans do that ... they blow it.” (This from the best supporting actress in The Gipper Goes to Washington.)

In his winning performance, the confident newcomer proves that sincerity must temper ambition. Or must appear to, at least. Harry Reid, needing a Hillary substitute, sends in the young phenom. Obama plays expertly, finessing Tim Russert on Meet the Press about his earlier assertion that he was not running: “To Obama, the ritual parsing of these kinds of statements was a tedious preoccupation of the media, an obsession that few real Americans shared.” He would play, and hard, “but I’m also going to emerge intact. I’m going to be Barack Obama and not some parody.”

Game Change, poorly written in general, is full of fun, distracting revelations. Reid said “Negro”! Elizabeth Edwards ripped her blouse! Bill called Obama a barista! Alert the commentariat!

In America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President, 1956–1980, Theodore H. White recalls John F. Kennedy storming off his campaign plane to make a phone call to help the recently arrested Martin Luther King Jr. “Now such a gesture would have to be planned by staff so that television might cover it, and the tactic fit to strategy,” White observes. He meant the old three-network media, but he suspected cable would make things worse, and of course had no clue about YouTube. No matter, because what White saw at stake in 1980 still torments us: “What was the proper role of government in a country of free people?”

Sadly, that’s become another game. The image that emerges from Game Change, of a monolithic media that filters information, only plays into Tea Party paranoia.

New-media types celebrate the mainstream media’s decline, but politicians still retail narratives through the DIY model—it might be easier, in fact. We still need informed, skeptical reporters, but not to chart momentum, and not to plot what we can know and when. That game has to change.

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