Sunday, January 24, 2010

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I tend to launch right into my opinion, forgetting to tell people what the book I'm reviewing is about. So before I get carried away – Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is sort of a behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 presidential race, but with an "opening of the kimono" twist, revealing the candidates as we rarely see them,  people just like us – sometimes stupid, sometimes smart, capable of fear, insecurity, profanity, love, pain and plain ole' meanness. So on to the good stuff.

I loved Game Change. I couldn’t put it down. It was an interesting, cleverly written and fun story about a historic time in America. That’s not to say that some of the things about it didn’t tick me off, or that it was completely accurate, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Read on...
First, I want to talk about the off-the-hook reactions to the book that have gone viral on the web. The brouhaha has been predictable and understandable, but what’s been interesting to me is how certain groups/types have responded. For example:
·             Political junkies who constantly prowl the blogosphere, tend to say, “Shame on you for telling everyone else about the dirty laundry that I already worked so hard to find out!”
·            Journalists are screaming, foul at Heilemann and Halperin for not divulging their sources. Which I find ironic since journalists are also the first to wave the first amendment to protect their sources. They sound jealous that Heilemann and Halperin are going to make tons of money!
·           The average, a-political’s are saying, “Loved it! Juicy.”
·           The subjects of the book, the Obamas, Clintons, McCains and Palins are eerily quiet!

One of the things that irritated me was that while most of the main female characters in the book were portrayed as evil - Hillary Clinton, Cindy McCain, Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Edwards, and Rielle Hunter (John Edward’s girlfriend), most of the main male characters in the book were portrayed as stupid – Bill Clinton, John McCain, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of Heilemann and Halperin attitudes, or those of their sources, but it was obvious to me, and to others (i.e., Salon's Joan Walsh. Scroll down to “When Gossip Trumps News”).

I did disagree with one thing that Walsh said. “At a time when we're fighting at least two wars, enduring double-digit unemployment, a controversial health care reform bill may or may not become law, and Haiti just had a devastating earthquake, how could we possibly be talking, nearly 24/7, about a gossipy book that reveals nothing serious about policy, hidden deals, corruption or conflicts of interest along the 2008 campaign trail?” 

It’s called release valve, honey. When things are really crazy, we tend to look for ridiculous, funny stuff to relieve the pressure. I’d say the timing is perfect. Frankly, I really enjoyed my little Game Change vacation! 

Another thing, it felt like Obama and Michelle were being “handled” differently than everyone else. I agree that they are a charming, smart couple, but when they said something inappropriate or shocking, Heilemann and Halperin portrayed them as cool, but skewered everyone else that inserted foot in mouth. 

For example, Barack Obama apparently tossed the F-word around like a football, and nothing is made of it, but when McCain says it, he’s the devil. Also, when Michelle says that for the first time in her life she’s proud of America, that’s fine.  But when others criticize her for it, they’re the devil. When Obama says that he’s not going to be bitch-slapped around my McCain, it’s clever. But when Bill Clinton says that 10 years ago Obama would have been serving them coffee, he’s the devil. Obviously, all were stupid gaffs, but it irritated me that they weren’t treated equally. I did think that Obama’s quote, referring to the campaign, “This shit would be really interesting if we weren't in the middle of it," was priceless, and pretty much sums up the book!

Back to the voluminous complaints about the fact that Heilemann and Halperin provided virtually zero sources for the information upon which they built their book! Gimme a freaking break! That’s probably why it's true! Here’s why I think that.

It was pretty clear that much of the information in the book came from the candidates’ closest campaign aids and advisors. Having worked for a number of elected officials, and on the inside of several campaigns:
  1. Top aids know more about the candidates than the candidate’s spouses, children, doctors and pastors.
  2. The relationships are contentious at best – the stress is enough to peel the skin off your face – people scream, cuss, throw fits, jump ship and spill their guts.
  3. Aids and former aids and advisors, under the protection of anonymity, probably l-o-v-e-d telling all.

Another couple of things that come into play that are not necessarily confined to political campaigns:
  1. Perspective is everything.
  2. Hindsight is always 20-20 and cheap. 
In the fray of battle, decisions and reactions are based on best information. After the dust settles, it is always easier to see the would-a, could-a, should-a.

One of the Huffington Post journalists did a blistering review of Game Change, saying, among many other things, that he doubted the veracity of a story in the book about Elizabeth Edwards, in a huge screaming match with her husband at the airport, tearing her blouse open (referring I guess to her breast cancer, and John’s infidelity), screaming and crying, “Look at me! Look at me!” “She wouldn’t do that,” the Huffington journalist says. Obviously he’s never been involved in an intense relationship.

Although Game Change shed an unflattering light on almost all the players, it was created with the benefit of hindsight, and that’s pretty cheap. On the other hand, who cares? The book is fun and interesting. Such is the plight of people who chose to live their lives in the fishbowl of public scrutiny. Like James Fray’s “Million Little Pieces,” I don’t care if it’s true or not, it’s entertaining reading.  And if you don’t want people to know about your dirty laundry, don’t pull your pants down and say,  "Look at me!”

One thing that never appeared in the book, and which really surprised me was the issue of security for Obama. The entire campaign I was really worried that some idiot would try to assassinate him, but security was never even mentioned in the book. I can’t imagine that extraordinary arrangements weren’t in play, but "nada" in the book.

The following video of John Heilemann, Game Change co-author, appearing on the Colbert Report on Comedy Central is funny, but it also gives you a little info about how the authors collected and supposedly crossed checked info. It sounds convincing, and this is a funny note on which to finish this review.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
John Heilemann
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

I’m not sure who would like this book, but based upon the fact that you can barely find a place to buy a copy, evidently lots of people think they’ll like it! I think that you will too. I sure as heck did.

If you’ve read it, please give me your feedback – or even if you haven't, I've love to hear from you - this one is ripe for discussion!



  1. Fabulous review!!! Looks like lots of research went into this one. Loved John Colbert, but you're the bomb!! Thanks for this. Can't wait to get the book, IF I can find it! Deb

  2. Is it frightening that a comedian is our most reliable source for political news?

    Now that's a game changer. Interesting.

  3. Every source has a perspective, and sometimes an agenda. I think that you have to sift through it all and glean out the best truth you can. However, most seem to gravitate to the source that supports their own personal believe, which is a rather backwards, albeit interesting democratic system. These days things move so fast though, it seems the game is changed daily! Is it real or is it the "story" dejour! Thanks for your comment, Margaret. SueAnn

  4. I liked the review - and the comments. Now, of course, I will buy the book - every best seller has a long waiting list at the library and I want to read it NOW. Which leads to my next thought - you should get a commission for the books you review - or at least free books. Have you ever thought of giving your blog a commercial angle, as in sponsors, gifts for readers, etc. Many bloggers do that. Charlena

  5. I have thought about it Charlena - just not sure I'm there yet. Thanks for you comment.