Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime"

Although the 2008 election was a long and bloody fight to the finish (particularly when you consider both the drawn-out Democratic primaries and the general election), it was also one of the most fascinating events in recent history. Such a rich and vibrant story has inspired numerous books, but the one that has gotten the most buzz is the recently published Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. This book gives an insider's view as to what went on behind the scenes during the primaries and the election. Peter Segal of Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me put it best when he described the book as reading "like a season of Survivor with the winner getting control of a nuclear arsenal."

First things first, I have to mention that it is hard to know the veracity of events Heilemann and Halperin describe. Although the authors claim that they conducted hundreds of interviews with staffers and other people closely associated with the campaign, they also opt "not to identify the subjects as sources in any way" (p.x) in order to ensure candor. While this is certainly understandable, it does give the book a somewhat disingenuous air, and the recreation of scenes and conversations makes you wonder how much of this book is based on truth (or, as the case may be, truthiness) and how much is based on speculation.

Furthermore, some readers might be turned off by the gossipy nature of the book. In a sense, Game Change is the perfect example of truthiness in that it focuses on the heart/ relationships rather than the political issues/ facts of the campaign. Instead of focusing on the politics of the race, the book centers on the candidates and their relationships with their staff members and spouses. This, naturally, lends itself to having a tone as dishy as an article from People magazine.

I didn't find these two limitations too troubling when reading. In fact, Game Change is probably the most intriguing book I have read in a long time, and I stayed up until 5:00 am finishing it in one sitting. What is remarkable about this is that this book is not a "whodunit" in any sense. Going in, you know exactly what is going to happen: Obama will win the Democratic nomination and the election, Clinton will be Secretary of State. However, to their credit, Heilemann and Halperin's writing and descriptions are so engaging that it is easy to become caught up in the backstage happenings, even when you know the outcome.

As far as the focus on the candidates and their relationships goes, I found that to be one of the most appealing aspects of the books. After months of watching the politics, issues, and public displays being played to death on cable news, it is interesting to read about what was going on when the cameras stopped rolling. Yes, the book veers into the tawdry, particularly when it comes to discussing and dissecting the candidates' marital relationships (the McCains and the Edwards's are particularly brutal), but it is also fascinating. As Halperin noted during a radio appearance on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, "You know that you got a lot of marital dysfunction when the Clintons have, like, the forth most dysfunctional marriage in the book."

In addition to describing John McCain's tirades (he has a profane one where he is yelling the "f" word at his wife while making an obscene gesture) and John Edwards's intense megalomania, which is so over-the-top that it would be funny if it weren't so utterly misplaced, Game Change also delves into the Clinton campaign and how it imploded into chaos. The book is particularly detailed in describing the personality disagreements among Clinton's top campaign staffers and in Bill Clinton's complex and troubled role in the campaign. Surprisingly, the authors go somewhat easy on the easy target of Sarah Palin. While they do question Palin's intelligence, knowledge, and sanity (at one point, the McCain staff is worried that she has a mental disorder), they lay most of the blame for her meteoric rise and dizzying fall at the feet of the McCain campaign, which they say did not vet her properly or prepare her for the the scrutiny that she would be under or for the rigors on the campaign trail.

Although compulsively readable, the book isn't perfect. It does seem to go a little soft on Obama; perhaps this is partly because of his victory, but the authors make the argument that he is so cool and controlled that there wasn't a lot of real dirt to dish. Also, the book neglects some of the most electric moments of the campaign. Conspicuously missing are the backstage drama and analysis to election night (the book skips from the day before the election to the day after).

That said, the book serves as a reminder to why this election was so dynamic and so different. Read it, remember that crazy period, and laugh at the authors' funny and sometimes caustic observations (best line: "What no one realized was how severely Palin's bandwidth was constricted").