Book Review: A Campaign That Will Go Down In History
It will be many years before the definitive book about the 2008 Presidential campaign is written, probably long after most of the participants are dead. After all, it took over eighty years for a truly definitive look at the Election of 1920, and more than forty for a similar volume to be written about the 1960 Election. However, for those of us who are political junkies and lived through it, Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
To a large degree, what makes Game Change interesting is the fact that, thanks to “deep background” interviews with campaign staffers and, quite clearly from the content, several of the candidates themselves, Heilmann and Halperin give us a side of an election that ended just seventeen months ago; the inside. The more lurid and controversial revelations are already well-known thanks to press coverage when the book came out; Harry Reid’s description of Obama as an “articulate Negro”, Bill Clinton’s comment to Ted Kennedy that Obama would have been getting both of them coffee just a few years ago, and, of course, the sordid, sick tale of John and Elizabeth Edwards. Because of those, many have criticized the book as more tabloid than journalism or a first-draft at history.
Those criticism are unfair, though While there are those kinds of gossipy revelations in the book, Game Change is also chock-full of interesting behind-the-scenes details about a campaign that, for better or worse, is likely to go down as one of the truly significant elections in American history.
For understandable reasons, Heilemann and Halperin spend the most time covering the epic knock-down drag-out battle for the Democratic nomination, and in doing so they provide very interesting insights into the characters of both the current President and the current Secretary of State. The story of Barack Obama’s rise, for example, from junior Senator from Illinois to Presidential candidate, and then Democratic frontrunner, for example, reveals a man who is so self-assured of his own destiny and the rightness of his opinion that it borders on arrogance. Clinton’s case is more interesting because she clearly acknowledged to campaign staff, and later Obama herself, that her biggest problem wasn’t her record, but a 250+lb former President named William Jefferson Clinton.
For Republicans, Game Change is likely to be a depressing affair. Not so much for it’s concentration on the Obama/Clinton race, but for the inside details it provides to seemingly confirm that the McCain campaign was the worst-run major party Presidential campaign in modern American history. It started at the beginning, really, because McCain’s decision to enter the 2008 race can pretty much be seemed up as “Well, I’ve got nothing better to do.” McCain’s heart was never in the race, and he was not the same candidate he was in 2000. Had it not been for the fact that he was up against a fractured, and disorganized, Republican field, it’s possible he would not have won the nomination at all.
But the worst indictment of McCain in the book comes in the description of two instances that demonstrate clearly that he does not possess the temperament or decision making abilities that are required of a President. First, of course, is the selection of his running mate. Halperin and Heilemann tell us that McCain was far more set on the idea baffling idea of picking Joe Lieberman to be his running mate than reported publicly, to the point where there was very little discussion of any other candidates. The only other candidate that was seriously mentioned was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, but when it’s clear that he really wouldn’t have done anything for the ticket, the name Sarah Palin comes up for pretty much the first time, only two days before the selection was to be made public. There was no real vetting of the Palin candidacy, and nobody bothered to look into her record as a candidate or a Governor to determine if she would be ready for the rough-and-tumble world of national politics. Clearly, she wasn’t as the months of September and October 2008 made all too apparent.
The second incident that reveals McCain’s flaws was his response to the September 2008 financial crisis. Not only didn’t McCain have any real idea what was going on, he showed little desire to find out, and, unlike Obama, no desire to get involved politically to deal with it. Yes, he famously “suspended” his campaign to go to Washington to hold a White House summit on the crisis, but, once there, he barely participated and essentially ceded the ground to Barack Obama. It was a stupid, impulsive decision on his part that reflected badly on him, and his advisers. Honestly, if that’s the way he would have made decisions as President, I’m glad he didn’t win.
There are other tidbits in Game Change that political geeks will love. For example, remember that famous video of Hillary Clinton breaking down in tears at a forum just before the New Hampshire Primary ? Well, that happened only an hour after she had a conversation with her Campaign Manager telling her that they were probably going to lose New Hampshire and that she should drop out of the race if they did. Ironic, considering the fact that it was that incident that is widely credited with lighting the spark of the comeback that put the Granite State in Hillary’s column. Also, Heilemann and Halperin devote an entire chapter to Bill Clinton’s disastrous campaign swing through the Palmetto State before the South Carolina primary that is a definite must read.
In short, for anyone who watched the 2008 campaign unfold on television and the Internet, Game Change is a must-read if only to get at least part of the story of what really happened. The rest will have to wait until sometime in 2050 I’m guessing.