Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: Game Change

This is not a political blog. Rather, we aim to cover "new millennium popular culture." But one of the strange aspects of this new millennium is that it's often difficult to discern the difference between politics and popular culture. The combination of 24-hour cable news, talk radio and countless political websites that cater to readers of a specific political persuasion has created an atmosphere in which politics and pop culture are often one and the same.

We expect to be entertained by our politics nowadays. Luckily, the politicians themselves seem happy to oblige us. The recent 2008 election, hotly contested and seemingly endless, featured so many scandals and "gates" that it was difficult for even the most focused political junkie to keep track of all the developments. Remember Reverend Wright? Rielle Hunter? Vicki Iseman? Snipergate, Troopergate, and Bittergate? All of these were major news developments of the time. But looking back, they seem largely irrelevant.

Still, the 2008 election was stuffed with such polarizing characters and lively personalities that the event seems straight out of a comic book. And veteran journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have reconstructed this narrative in Game Change, a work of nonfiction that nevertheless reads better than most novels. A book stitched together from hundreds of confidential interviews, Game Change follows the major players of the 2008 elections from the first steps of the primary to the formation of Obama's Cabinet after his election.

Game Change gleefully throws the reader through every wacky development of the election. Granted, the election was so bizarre and filled with such wild characters that the book almost writes itself, but Heilemann and Halperin manage to take the campaigns of the "major" players (Obama, Clinton, McCain, Edwards) and craft the story into a compelling narrative. Obama is the green politician who is still struggling to find his feet. Clinton is the calculating policy wonk who feels entitled to the nomination. Edwards is the clueless ladies man who is the last one in the country to figure out that his political career is at an end.

But more than painting existing stereotypes about these politicians, the real triumph of Game Change is its ability to humanize these characters who were omnipresent in our lives back in 2008. Though Obama, Clinton and McCain all like to pretend otherwise, they are all living, breathing human beings with their own strengths and foibles. Game Change guides the readers through these politicians' expectations, the crises that worried them the most, the political moves they considered their greatest successes. The book acts much like a Cliff's Notes to the 2008 campaigns - understanding these personalities and what they were actually feeling helps put both the victories and the mis-steps into a better context. Obama, Clinton and McCain all come off as very real people, each who made mistakes along the way, but each who is still very convinced that they are the best choice for the country.

But what fun is a political book without gossip? Whereas the three politicians mentioned above might be humanized to the point of sympathy, other figures in the book come off far less graciously. Bill Clinton is painted in unflattering terms as a man who never really learned to step out of the spotlight. One hilarious chapter describes the Clinton campaign's efforts to convince Bill to leave South Carolina after a serious of political gaffes - Bill refuses, and the campaign is helpless when it comes to nullifying the ex-president. It's something that almost reads like political satire, as Hillary uses trickery and deception to try and convince her own husband to leave her campaign alone.

Likewise, both John Edwards and his wife come across as particularly nasty people. Edwards is framed as an overly ambitious and incompetent political rookie, a man who failed to realize that having a child out of wedlock while his wife was dying from cancer might be an impediment to his political career. And the portions on Sarah Palin, while not containing anything as juicy as the Edwards sex scandal, still manage to paint a quite damning portrait of the vice-presidential candidate. The section in which McCain staffers have to write the difference between North and South Korea on flashcards for Palin to memorize is another example of the absurdity of real life trumping any kind of political satire.

But, in the end, the biggest strengths of Game Change are also its biggest failings. Halperin and Heilemann do not name any specific sources that they contacted for this project. While this allowed them to write a much more candid and entertaining book than they otherwise might have, it also means that it's difficult for the reader to discern between the real political facts and the hearsay. Unnamed sources are an important aspect of political journalism - but in this case, the unnamed sources seem to delight in regaling gossipy anecdotes rather than pertinent information. Some claims - like the notion that Edwards campaign staffers were actively working against their boss - seem desperate for some sort of factual attribution beyond the usual "unnamed source," and while it's understandable that the authors couldn't provide this, it ultimately hinders the book from being anything more than a upscale version of a gossip rag.

The other failing of Game Change comes from the fact that, in its quest to be so entertaining, it deftly sidesteps any real issues. All the obscenities, scandals and smear campaigns are elucidated in great detail. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the book is how little these politicians spend talking about actual policy issues.

Clinton, McCain, and Obama all based their campaign around portraying a certain identity to the electorate. The book explains quite well as to how some campaigns were better at doing this than others. But, in the end, Game Change provides a picture of politicians obsessed with cultivating an artificial image of themselves. All policy issues seem like a secondary concern to how the candidates are perceived on television.

The fact that politics is like this is not necessarily the fault of the authors. But Game Changedoes nothing to help the situation, either. While reading the book, I was struck with a lot of questions that I felt were worth exploring. Was the media too soft on Obama during the early stages of his campaign? Were Clinton and Palin treated differently because of their gender? What are the proper roles for the candidates' spouses to play in decision making? How did the Internet contribute to perceptions of the candidates, whether positive or negative?

All of these questions merit consideration. But Halperin and Heilemann seem content with the status quo. I found it disturbing how much of a campaign's energy seems wrapped up in selling an identity, and how little is spent on actually conveying policy positions to the general public. I'm not asking the authors of Game Change to necessarily deliver a diatribe against the evils of modern political campaigns. But it does seem slightly amiss to serve up all this gossip about smear tactics and media perceptions in a fancy hardcover book as though its important.

Instead, I wonder if Halperin and Heilemann are part of the problem, serving up lots of information on how campaigns are run without really taking the time to question whether or not this is the way campaigns should be run at all. As a work of neutral journalism, Game Change is a solid piece of writing. It takes no sides, and delivers the facts in the most unbiased way possible. As a work of political nonfiction, however, the book borders on irresponsible. It's difficult to read hundreds of pages of this stuff without wondering whether or not it's worth reporting on. One could read the entirety of the book and walk away without knowing where any of the candidates actually stood on any of the issues. The authors don't see anything wrong with this; in fact, they seem to encourage it by writing such a book - a book that will surely be read by future campaign managers to know what mistakes to avoid in the future.

Was I entertained by Game Change? No doubt. It has compelling characters, a fast-paced narrative, enough plot twists to make Lost look simplistic, and it has the added bonus of being all true. But perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we're supposed to be entertained by politics. In a world where all news is pitched toward entertainment, and all candidates seem to want to craft a compelling lifestory for themselves, perhaps we need to be wary of looking for mere entertainment in a field that should be far more serious. Politics need not always be entertaining. Perhaps, from time to time, it should even be disturbing.