Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review: Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.

-- from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

You'll hear no argument from me that the 2008 presidential election was a game-changer for American electoral politics. Certainly, it was a game-changer in terms of the leading candidates' gender and ethnic identities--for the first time ever, the top contenders for the country's two highest offices included a woman and an African-American man.

It was also a game-changer by default in that Americans, after eight years with George W. Bush in the White House, found themselves in a worse position economically than ever before--real wages had long been stagnant while the cost of living continued to rise, and the national debt had skyrocketed as the government borrowed more and more in order to finance two wars--and all signs were pointing to an impending sea-change. The table had been set.

And it was a game-changer in that a relatively new and exciting medium--the Internet--would now play a vital role in electing our next president.

From a November, 2008 New York Times piece:

One of the many ways that the election of Barack Obama as president has echoed that of John F. Kennedy is his use of a new medium that will forever change politics. For Mr. Kennedy, it was television. For Mr. Obama, it is the Internet. [...]

Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign -– which was run by Mr. Trippi –- was groundbreaking in its use of the Internet to raise small amounts of money from hundreds of thousands of people. But by using interactive Web 2.0 tools, Mr. Obama’s campaign changed the way politicians organize supporters, advertise to voters, defend against attacks and communicate with constituents.

Mr. Obama used the Internet to organize his supporters in a way that would have in the past required an army of volunteers and paid organizers on the ground, Mr. Trippi said.

My fondness for politics (some might call it a masochistic streak)--and propensity to examine the natures and narratives of the human players involved therewith--added up to my being eager to read Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, which is now out in paperback.

No matter where on the spectrum your politics lie, Game Change is a terrifically absorbing and entertaining read. There is truly something for everyone. For the political novice, Game Change serves as a primer on How Americans Elect Leaders as well as a decent, almost-court-side seat at the Big Game, as it were, where the reader can see the posturing, promising, and bruise-delivering up close; where he can hear the the sotto voce swearing and deal-making with his own ears.

For the political junkie, it's a sustained--if limited and carefully controlled--glimpse of the mindset and methodology our would-be leaders. Yet despite enjoying the fly-on-the-wall perspective that Heilmann and Helperin weave into the stories (tales?), I found myself wanting more.

Numerous analyses of the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and, of course, Barack Obama have hit the blogosphere in the years since the election. I want to focus on two of the book's underdog protagonists, for lack of a better term, namely Senator John McCain and former-governor Sarah Palin. I'd already heard about Senator John McCain's hot temper and fondness for expletives, so reading that he screamed "Fuck you! Fuck, fuck, fuck (10x)" into his wife Cindy's face and made her cry at an early strategy meeting, while disturbing, did not really illuminate anything. What about his constantly-changing positions? Could a fly on the wall have perhaps noted the underlying reasons for McCain's various about-face moments--that he was not quite the "maverick" of yesteryear, but rather, an ambitious politician who'd embrace conventional wisdom and conservative-politics-as-usual (promoting the war machine, cutting taxes, tacitly supporting anti-immigration sentiments in word if not heart) if that's what it took to get himself elected?

I am deeply interested in that: what happens in a man or woman's mind when what one assumed were their core principles seem change so radically before one's eyes. And I remain interested, even as I fully understand the difficulty of getting into someone's head, particularly when that head belongs to John McCain. An omniscient hidden narrator--in this case, Heilemann and Helperin--needs to be bolder and more comprehensive in his filling-in of the motivation blanks. We cannot figure out McCain--he is unlike anyone we know--so given only limited information about his campaign's financial woes and his hot temper and foul mouth, we're going to liken him to a furious, bitter, more-than-a-little-unhinged older relative, or else a perpetually embattled and resentful history teacher we once knew and feared.

In their coverage of former-Governor Sarah Palin, in a chapter entitled "Sarahcuda", the authors famously discuss McCain's Vice Presidential preferences, namely, that he really, truly wanted to have Democratic Senator Joe Liebermann on the ticket. Liebermann had endorsed McCain, and along with Senator Lindsay Graham, the men had apparently become known as The Three Amigos, a group of guys who yukked it up on the trail and amused themselves by watching repeat screenings of John Edwards fixing his hair in a YouTube video. We learn that despite McCain's close friendship with Liebermann and his earnest wish to have him on the ticket--and despite John McCain's advisers being on board with him as the VP pick (at first), having contacted Liebermann and told him as much--the combined efforts and influence of Karl Rove and adviser Charlie Black led to his abandoning the notion of choosing a pro-choice candidate. We then find out that with mere days remaining before the Republican convention, McCain advisers, led by Steve Schmidt, recommended that he consider Alaska's then-governor, Sarah Palin. Quoting the authors as they describe Schmidt's pitch: "She was pro-life, anti-stem-cell research, pro-gun, and pro-states' rights...She was intensely competitive, apparently fearless, and endlessly watchable." We also learn how very little vetting of Palin was actually carried out; less, in fact, than "a potential assistant secretary of agriculture would receive".

Fast-forward to the present, bearing in mind the many skeletons that have fallen from Palin's closet and the ones yet to fall, one is hard-pressed to understand how an experienced politician like John McCain could possibly have chosen a candidate whose presence on the ticket would ultimately prove detrimental. Yes, Palin was pro-life, and that would please the evangelical voters. She was also charismatic and possessed of the kind of confidence and poise exhibited by aspiring beauty queen students with good pageant coaches. And she was attractive--all the better, as far as McCain was concerned.

She was also, as the authors subtly note, "unprepared"; however, inherent in that that term is the implication that with appropriate amounts of work, the subject can be "prepared". This was clearly not the case, we learn. In reading about the intensive efforts to educate and re-make Palin, one can only surmise that the best coaches and stylists money could buy were corralled and sent to her suite, and while the surface results would prove impressive, Palin's apparent lack of knowledge and unwillingness to study the issues would ultimately turn off one of the very voter blocs McCain and his advisers were counting on winning over: women. Particularly women who'd supported Hillary Clinton. She wasn't "unprepared": she was obtuse, and she seemed adamant about remaining so.

I found this passage to be especially shocking:

They sat Palin down at a table in the suite, spread out a map of the world, and proceeded to give her a potted history of foreign policy. They started with the Spanish Civil War, then moved on to World War I, World War II, the cold war, and what Scheunemann liked to call the "three wars of today--Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terror.

That someone with so little knowledge could conceivably have become Vice President of the United States--a 72-year-old cancer-survivor's heartbeat away from the presidency, as they say--is utterly shameful, and after reading Game Change (and after having researched and written about Palin in the time since the election), I am still unclear as to how or why John McCain could make such an irresponsible choice.

Perhaps McCain had truly grown to hate politics, and as the authors imply, had come to despise his own role in it and take a sort of scorched-earth approach to his own career. Or perhaps he wanted to make a big, tantrum-like point to other Republicans--to show them that they were wrong (in counseling him away from choosing Joe Liebermann) and he was right.

Even though many of its revelations have become common knowledge since its first publication, and despite the many questions that the book leaves largely unanswered--questions about McCain's motivations; about Palin's strange and self-contradicting lies about her then-recent alleged pregnancy and her husband's membership in the secessionist Alaska Independence Party; and about Cindy McCain's inexplicably enduring tolerance for verbal and emotional abuse--Game Change is a thumping good read. In a world where messaging is so tightly controlled as to make one wonder if politicians consult their advisers before wishing their friends a Happy Birthday, it's rather delicious to see and hear our leaders (and would-be leaders) in all their flawed glory--worrying, swearing, sniping, and generally acting much like the rest of us. Only with private jets and nicer suits.

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