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

By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I know I haven’t posted in a while, and it is because I’ve been hauling my way through a large and very unusual book for me—political nonfiction—so I’m writing a very long post to compensate.

I checked this book out from the library the day after seeing the HBO movie of the same name, which was just a narrow slice of the full scope of the book*. I enjoyed the movie; I knew all the public politics already, but it was fascinating seeing all the behind-the-scenes shuffling, like peering backstage at a show. I wanted to know more about it, so I checked out the book.

And very quickly realized that I did not want to know more about it. Politics isn’t a Broadway show, it’s a sausage factory**, and if I wanted to still enjoy sausage, I damn sure didn’t want to see how it is made. Now, I’m a democrat and the book reads somewhat democrat-leaning, though the authors are political correspondents and journalists who I am sure pride themselves on their unbiased stance. However, every single person comes across as single-mindedly, self-centeredly ambitious in a microcosm of politics that not only doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the rest of the nation, but seems to disdain the rest of the nation a bit. So, I guess that, at least, is something bipartisan.

I will give Game Change this: it is so minutely, exhaustively researched that it sort of boggles the mind. It is written in a narrative structure, following the various candidates like protagonists in a story. When tracking Obama in 2006, well before he was in the national consciousness, they extrapolate his frame of mind from a note he passed to another senator in a committee meeting and a hand gesture (not the one you are thinking of right now) he made in the hallway of the Capitol. I imagine the two authors scouring every building he ever set foot in and asking everybody and anybody there, “Did you ever see President Obama? What was he doing? Did he say anything—anything at all?!”

The best part is reading about the events that I actually remember from the race, but reading them in context with everything else that came between. The oddest part, though, is reading about pivotal, influential events about which I had no idea here in the midlands of America. (ex. Apparently, Maureen Dowd wrote an article in which she interviewed David Geffen about his disillusionment with the Clintons? It was a big moment where democrats felt free to criticize the Clintons and support Obama instead? I mean, I know who Maureen Dowd is, though I’ve never read anything by her. I initially thought David Geffen might be Liza Minnelli’s most recent husband, until it quickly became clear that wasn’t right.)

I guess I can kind of see where politicians get their contempt for all the rest of us, but I think that contempt comes from a very ignorant place—they have no idea how we think and how we make decisions. And because they don’t understand it, they disdain it. I imagine that it is stories like my own that drive politicians crazy: I saw the campaign ads, read articles, and still couldn’t make up my mind between Clinton and Obama. Then, I read a post on a small blog that I regularly check out where the author commented that if Clinton gets elected, two families would have been running the White House for 24 years and that is some disconcerting dynasty-building right there. And that’s what did it for me—that one post made my decision.

Later, it occurred to me that this phenomena kind of highlights how insular the political world is, at least for the active players. For myself, only the largest of political events break into my brain space that is otherwise occupied with my daily office work, what I’m making for dinner, how to balance this month’s budget, etc. For the people in this book, though, this is their entire life.

When the HBO movie came out, Palin understandable objected to it, and HBO tried to argue that it wasn’t necessarily an unflattering portrait, which of course it is. The book is not truly flattering either, but it is a lot more balanced in assigning blame equally on McCain’s people.

The vast majority of the book is spent on the democratic primaries, to the point where it gets a little bogged down, but then it rushes through the general race at breakneck speed, making me feel like I was missing things that they simply weren’t discussing.

This is perhaps the best compliment: Game Change already has me looking at the 2012 race in a different light.

A couple of random concluding thoughts:

  • The book does a great job of humanizing the politicians. It is a little embarrassing to admit, but it had not occurred to me that politicians could actually be sad or get their feelings hurt while on the campaign. I guess I just thought that so much of the discourse was overblown wind-bagging, that it all was. I was kind of shocked how many of them break down into tears at one point or another.
  • Hillary Clinton’s political career so far could almost be a Greek play (I’m not sure yet whether a tragedy or comedy): her husband is the one that initially gives her the political clout and name-recognition to run for president, but he was also her biggest obstacle in the campaign and probably the strongest reason she lost.

*A VERY narrow slice – the book breaks down as follows:

  • Pages 1-267: the race for the Democratic nomination, focusing on the Obama and Clinton campaigns, with some discussion of Edwards (which has been very informative in light of the current trial)
  • Pages 268-319: the race for the Republican nomination, focusing almost entirely on McCain with a few pages about Giuliani
  • Pages 320-436: the general election (the events of the HBO movie are all contained within pages 353-416)

**The 12-year-old in me says, “YEAH, it is!” (sorry)

One comment on “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

  1. Rebecca says:

    Urgh. This sounds like a fascinating book that, if I were a good and dedicated citizen devoted to doing my civic duty, I should really want to read. It is a demonstration then of how ambivalent I am regarding my civic duty that I really don’t want to read it. But kudos for you for reading it.

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