A gripping page-turner even if the story lines are all too familiar, Game Change (2010, Harper Collins) is also all that is wrong with contemporary journalistic coverage of politics. True, we learned of candidate Obama's mettle and John McCain's meltdown in the midst of financial crisis, but we also delved deep into the marriages of the Obamas, McCains, and yes, the Clintons once more. We sifted through the savory details of John Edwards' own "bimbo eruption," along with his deranged vision to serve first as Obama's VP, and later his Attorney General. Altogether, Game Change elevates the horse race aspect of politics to its pinnacle, ignoring candidate resumes and policy positions for their gravitas on the trail.
The first 267 pages are devoted to the two horse photo finish between Democratic contenders Obama and Clinton . The current president comes off as cool under pressure, while Clinton seemingly fell victim to a poorly managed campaign and a self-destructive husband whose late game antics bordered on race-baiting. So much for Bill Clinton's reputation as the "first black president." Hillary was both unable and unwilling to reign her husband in, but she is painted as a sympathetic figure who would have served capably as chief executive.
The Republican primary, remarkable in its own right, garners a mere 50 pages. Perhaps the most interesting anecdotes relate to McCain's decision to bet the entire race on his support for the Iraq surge and New Hampshire town halls. Also interesting was the Republican field's mutual dislike for Governor Mitt Romney, the early favorite for the 2012 nomination. An awkward pre-debate bathroom scene paints the picture of a candidate who couldn't even connect with his party rivals.
Perhaps most illuminating is the authors' portraits of the vice presidential selection process by both candidates. For Obama, after a meticulous screening, it came down to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, and the ultimate selection, Delaware Senator Joe Biden. The verbose statesman agreed to stick to the script as a condition of joining the ticket, and a late race slip aside, he mostly accomplished what many considered the impossible.
McCain, on the other hand, pursued a by the seat of his pants strategy typical of his personality. He favored crossing the aisle and selecting Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his wingman in a double-down national security team. This may have even included a one-term promise to make certain that control of the presidency wouldn't change parties in the case of his death in office. Concerns about further alienating the conservative base led his selection team away from the losing 2000 VP candidate. The safe option was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (a prospective 2012 candidate in his own right), but the unknown son of a truck driver from a blue state didn't represent the "game change" McCain sought, and probably needed to pull off the upset.
He then shocked the world by elevating first term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the VP perch. She was a late entry who impressed McCain's selection team with her steely nerves, but damaging details surfaced almost immediately as the press "discovered" the 49th state, Troopergate, and Bristol Palin's pregnancy. She delivered a stunning speech at the Republican convention, but it was all downhill from there, punctuated by her successive slayings in national interviews by Charlie Gibson, and especially, Katie Couric.
It's an understatement to say that Palin's portrayal in the media throughout the campaign and in the 15 months since Election Day has been disastrous, but Game Change delivers yet another devastating blow. She was clearly in over her head, surrounded by stacks of notecards containing factoids that should have been old hat to any candidate aspiring to stand a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Her debate preparations for her single standoff were startling in their elementary nature. She refused to even eat, and some in the campaign feared that she might have to at minimum cancel, or even withdraw from the race entirely.
Only a late flight to McCain's Sedona ranch and a reunion with her family boosted her spirits. Palin somehow survived her exchange with the seasoned Biden as both played gently and spared the race of yet another "game change." Her endurance aside, even Palin's most devoted fans would have a hard time believing that she remains presidential timber, at least at this juncture, after encountering this troubling account.
The authors selected an apt title for this best-selling volume, but it probably should be reworded in the plural. The thesis isn't premised on a single game change, but several. What they put forth is a campaign narrative constructed by the media. Whenever this script is altered, a "game change" supposedly surfaces.
Obama's Iowa win made him the inevitable candidate until Clinton came back in New Hampshire five days later. The former Illinois Senator had the nomination wrapped up in February after a string of post-Super Tuesday wins, yet Clinton found traction once more with wins in Ohio and Texas. Obama's "race speech" stood as a defining moment until Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary. Obama sealed the deal with a victory in the North Carolina primary and a narrow defeat in Indiana on the same day, but Clinton won the West Virginia primary by a stunning 40 points. To quote Yogi Berra, this race wasn't over until it was over, no matter how many times the talking heads told us so. And this was just one side of the coin.
While I confess that Game Change was a thrilling read for this incorrigible junkie, it also speaks to a media culture that revels in its own self-importance and plays a disproportionate role in political outcomes. The "media primary" is alive and well as the party has largely stepped aside and left it to the pundits to vet would be office-seekers over the course of a protracted campaign. Its positioning in the general election was equally pivotal, and probably a sign of things to come in 2012 and beyond.
Heilemann and Halperin contend that Game Change coalesced on the dual assumptions that we witnessed "as riveting and historic a spectacle as modern politics has ever produced," and that the story behind these headlines was not told. No disputing the former contention, but the latter is highly debatable. We knew enough about Michelle and Barack, Hillary and Bill, John and Cindy, and Sarah and Todd to consider them close acquaintances. Game Change arguably elevates them to family, and allows two accomplished journalists to put their own presidential experiences to bed.
Nowadays, all of the jokes in a romantic comedy are seemingly packed in the trailer. We flock into the movie theater, laugh a couple of times, but leave disappointed. Game Change represents a close parallel. Media coverage close to its release informed us of Harry Reid's racially-tinged missteps, John Edwards' mistress, and Bill Clinton's continued philandering. These revelations aside, Game Change largely sticks to a familiar script. It offers a rich narrative of memories ingrained somewhere in the back of our brains. For the politically obsessed among us, it allows us to finally lay the game-changing 2008 presidential election to rest.