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

Generally speaking, I’m a bit wary of books with more than one author, but Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime is smooth, reading like a less-sharp, less-funny episode of “The West Wing.” (Not even John Heilemann and Mark Halperin can top Aaron Sorkin.) The book is a chronicle of the 2008 presidential election for wonks and laymen alike, providing big-picture analyses of the late-aughts zeitgeist as well as the gossipy details that a book like this has got to offer in spades. Most of the Obama-Clinton parts are old news: the dysfunctional Clinton operation versus the clear-headed and laser-focused no-drama Obama campaign; the “Bill problem”; Mark Penn’s, shall we say, volatile personality and Patti Solis Doyle’s being out of her league; the increasingly desperate tactics in Hillaryland to salvage her candidacy (cf. “hard-working Americans, white Americans”); everyone coming together at the convention in Denver. I was a full-fledged Hillary (who requires only one name, like Cher or Madonna) supporter back in the day, though I don’t think she would have necessarily done a “better” job as President. And, in hindsight, it’s easy to point out exactly why she lost, and where the tipping point was. Her loss in Iowa? But then Obama got cocky and Hillary cried in New Hampshire. The South Carolina primary and Bill’s outbursts? But then came the Jeremiah Wright revelations and Hillary’s Super Tuesday wins in the big states. Ultimately, though, there can only be one winner and, despite the campaign dialectics that form when the race is finally over, I really believe it could have just as easily been Hillary than Obama. And Game Change did a pretty good job of recounting events exactly as they happened, with all the murkiness and insecurity and “we’re screwed” proclamations, on both sides, that went along with them.  

There also isn’t too much dirt on McCain and Palin, despite the fact that the HBO film version seems (at least according to the PR blitz; I haven’t seen the movie yet) to focus on Palin almost exclusively. It’s always a shock to have it hammered home just how little McCain knew about Palin before he picked her to be his running mate and, though the choice showed exceedingly bad judgment on his part, I don’t think she was the “game change” that did him in. Again, in a two-person, two-party race, it’s a zero-sum game, and McCain lost because someone had to. Which isn’t to say he didn’t make some big mistakes. The fact that the book pays what I thought to be almost perfunctory attention to his entire candidacy seems to support the fact that McCain has become irrelevant (which even I find a bit sad) and that the entire election was a foregone conclusion, even accounting for the Palin Factor. The book even mentions the prevalence of this bumper sticker, which I may or may not have tacked to my wall in the fall of 2008. And Democrats can nurture their schadenfreude through anecdotes about how unprepared both McCain and Palin were for their respective “big” meetings and interviews: The best is the one about that famed meeting in Washington over the financial crisis, the one McCain insisted on “suspending” his campaign to convene, the one where all the Democrats ceded to Obama to speak on their behalf and McCain just kind of lingered in the corner, offering tepid or banal remarks, if any at all, while Obama was well-informed, authoritative and presidential. “One Republican in the room mused silently, If you closed your eyes and changed everyone’s voices, you would have thought Obama was the president of the United States.” And even George Bush, who officially ran the meeting, “was dumbfounded by McCain’s behavior. He’d forced Bush to hold a meeting that the president saw as pointless—and then sat there like a bump on a log. Unconstructive, thought Bush. Unclear. Ineffectual.”

In fact, though, the best parts of Game Change center around John and Elizabeth Edwards, the former universally maligned for his marital indiscretions and his phony, pathetic attempts to squirm out of taking responsibility for them (“My wife’s cancer was in remission!”); the latter America’s Political Sweetheart, who died of breast cancer in December of 2010. In 2004, I thought Edwards was the second coming of Bill Clinton. By the time he decided to run in 2008, I think everyone considered him a bit passé, and though I liked his progressivism and what I believed to be a relatively humble demeanor, Game Change makes clear what the candidate’s supporters all came to realize—that Edwards just wasn’t the same after his big vice-presidential run. Throughout the 2008 race, the book charges Edwards was rude, entitled and megalomaniacal, betraying his cancer-stricken wife and engaging in behind-the-scenes deal-making to ensure the continued success and prestige of John Edwards. (Even after the Rielle Hunter imbroglio, Edwards thought he could worm his way into an appointment as Attorney General in an Obama Administration.) Game Change also makes some pretty startling revelations about Elizabeth:

“With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive. At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. The daughter of a navy pilot, Elizabeth had lived in Japan when she was a girl and considered herself worldly. She called her spouse a ‘hick’ in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. One time, when a friend asked if John had read a particular book, Elizabeth burst out laughing. ‘Oh, he doesn’t read books,’ she said. ‘I’m the one who reads books.’ . . . Elizabeth’s illness seemed at first to mellow her in the early months of 2005—but not for long. One day, she was on a conference call with the staffers of One America, the political action committee that was being turned into a vehicle for John’s upcoming 2008 campaign. There were forty or fifty people on the call, mostly kids in their twenties being paid next to nothing (and in some cases literally nothing). Elizabeth had been cranky throughout the call, but at the end she asked if her and her husband’s personal health care coverage had been arranged. Not yet, she was told. There are complications; let’s discuss it after the call. Elizabeth was having none of that. She flew into a rage. If this isn’t dealt with by tomorrow, everyone’s health care at the PAC will be cut off until it’s fixed, she barked. I don’t care if nobody has health care until John and I do! The health care call immediately attained wide infamy in the Edwardses’ political orbit. The people around them marveled at Elizabeth’s callousness—this from a woman whose family had multiple houses and a net worth in the tens of millions.”

The Edwards bits are by far the book’s most interesting, not just as grist for the gossip mills but as the beginnings of what could probably be a very intricate, even Shakespearean character study of a once-golden couple. In many ways, despite his current ignominy, I feel sorry for John Edwards. He had some interesting things to say and his fixation on poverty in America was especially commendable—he coulda been a contender.  Alas.

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