The politico-porn behind the presidential race

From libidinous Bill and crazy Hillary to the narcissistic John Edwards, Game Change shines a glorious, gossipy light on American politics.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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This article is republished from the January 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Game Change is the new sensational book about the 2008 US presidential race that entered the New York Times bestseller list at No.1 upon its publication a couple of weeks ago, and has had tongues around the country wagging ever since. (In the UK it goes by the title Race of a Lifetime.) Bookstores are known to sell out, and so as a service to busy spiked readers who have not yet got their hands on a copy, but who don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of admitting this at their next cocktail party, I offer Game Change (Abridged):

After a debate, Hillary on Obama: ‘What an asshole.’

Elizabeth Edwards (wife of John) is asked to help her husband’s campaign: ‘Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?’

Hillary, after her comeback win in the New Hampshire primary: ‘I get really tough when people fuck with me.’

The media slams Hillary for saying she’s staying in the race because ‘Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June’. Hillary responds: ‘Unfuckingbelievable!’

John McCain pulls even with Barack Obama in the polls. Obama to his adviser: ‘This shit would be really interesting if we weren’t in the middle of it.’

John McCain, into his wife’s face, both middle fingers raised and extended: ‘FUCK YOU! FUCK, FUCK, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!!!’

McCain changes his positions on the economy on a daily basis. Obama: ‘No fucking discipline.’

Okay, now you’re good.

Game Change’s co-authors – respected political journalists John Heilemann (New York magazine) and Mark Halperin (Time) – aim to provide ‘an intimate portrait of the candidates and their spouses’, which they believe ‘might be of enduring value’. Heavy dropping of the f-bomb (my abridged version is just a sampler) is just one way the authors seek to convey that theirs is truly an ‘intimate’ depiction of life on the campaign trail.

The book is jam-packed with revelations. It’s mostly gossip, politico-porn, and there’s no sense in trying to argue otherwise. But I have to confess I couldn’t put it down. And now I will have to look less harshly upon those who read OK! or watch Entertainment Tonight. Game Change is unlikely to prove ‘of enduring value’, as the authors hope, but if you don’t get totally caught up in the juicy bits and can step back from it all, the stories here can tell us something more substantial about the state of American politics today.

* * *

Somewhat surprisingly, they dwell most on Hillary Clinton. Game Change’s Hillary begins as an overconfident, presumptuous front-runner. Before even the first primary is held, she orders staff to start the vice-president selection process and plan the logistics of her move into the White House. On the campaign trail she is haughty and hates meeting voters: ‘I can’t believe this! How many times am I going to have to meet these same people!’

Many others have reported how chaotic and shambolic Hillary’s campaign was, but Game Change suggests that she was the main source of the disorganisation. She is emotional and flies off the handle. When one of her advisers talked to the media about Obama’s drug-taking during his college days, Clinton’s reaction was ‘Good for him!’ and ‘Let’s push it out!’. Believing conspiracy theorists, she urged aides to get their hands on a tape of Michelle Obama using the word ‘whitey’: ‘They’ve got a tape, they’ve got a tape’, she says excitedly. She appears paranoid, believing (even after she pulled out of the race) that the Obama campaign cheated in Iowa by importing out-of-state voters.

The book tells how Hillary’s campaign organisers struggled to keep her husband from becoming a distraction – or worse. The authors report that ‘the big dog’ was up to his old tricks. ‘Within days of settling into the Clintons’ new house in Chappaqua in 2001, he could be found at Lange’s deli, chatting up the stay-at-home mothers who trundled in after yoga, startling his aides that he already knew all the women by name.’ Rumours of bimbo eruptions proliferated, leading Hillary’s closest advisers to form ‘a war room within a war room inside Hillaryland, dedicated to managing the threat posed by Bill’s libido’.

Regarding Bill, Hillary’s status seems to be can’t live with him, can’t live without him. She tries to keep him out of the campaign, so as to avoid being overshadowed. But then after losing in Iowa, she asks him to play a more central role in New Hampshire. He then hits the road for her, but causes problems, like when he dismissively compared Obama’s win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s prior success (leading some to call him racist). Increasingly a liability, Bill is forced to drop out of active campaigning again. But he’s always coming back: at the Denver national convention, he – unbeknownst to Hillary – totally rewrites her speech, forcing her to scramble at the last minute to piece together the original.

The Clinton marriage appears downright conventional compared to what Heilemann and Halperin find going on with the Edwards couple. John Edwards is generally shown as a narcissistic, puffed-up fake, especially when parading his working-class hero pretensions. In Game Change, the authors focus on his affair with videomaker/groupie Rielle Hunter, a New Age flake who introduces herself to people by saying ‘I’m a witch’. Over time, it’s becoming obvious they’re having a relationship, and yet Edwards denies it to his staff, dragging them through the campaign to its bitter end. When Elizabeth’s cancer returns, he has the perfect excuse to drop out, but doesn’t. Even when the news that Hunter’s baby is his surfaces, the delusional Edwards still hopes to be named attorney general.

As the book points out, Elizabeth was in fact more well known than her husband, having a bestselling book about her cancer, and being celebrated by Oprah. Edwards’ political advisers tell the authors that there ‘was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing’. The reality was ‘an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman’. The day after the National Enquirer published details of her husband’s affair, the two were fighting in an airport parking lot in front of aides. Elizabeth tore off her blouse, exposing herself: ‘Look at me!’ she cried. John called her doctor, sent her home and flew off (like the way Don Draper responds to Betty in Mad Men).

The disarray is not limited to the Democrats side. John McCain’s campaign is a mess. His ‘country first’ message seems to gain a foothold, but he is unable to capitalise on it, thanks to his own self-destructive tendencies. McCain is portrayed by Heilemann and Halperin as helplessly reckless. Time and again, his adviser Steve Schmidt (who is really more of an operative than a strategist, but he’s the main guy) recommends something stupid – like suspending the campaign when the financial crisis hits – and presents it as high risk, high reward. To his discredit, McCain can’t resist. In September 2008, McCain showed up in Washington, only to have nothing to say about the crisis, and having to eat his words about a suspension. Towards the end, McCain had lost it, looking every bit of his age: in a town hall debate he continually wandered around the stage, ‘like a crazy uncle in search of a bathroom’, as one of his advisers put it.

Another one of Schmidt’s suggestions was Sarah Palin. Game Change reveals that the McCain campaign had settled upon Joe Lieberman as VP, only to realise one week before the Republican convention that picking a Democrat (and one who was Al Gore’s running mate) would alienate the party’s base. With no idea who to consider, Schmidt surfed the web and stumbled upon a YouTube video of Palin, interviewed on Charlie Rose. He then said she was perfect for various strategic reasons (excites the base, is a woman, etc). Her selection ended up undermining McCain’s ‘country first’ message (who could say that putting an incompetent like Palin a heartbeat away was patriotic?) as well as his argument that Obama lacked experience (since Palin was even less experienced).

Of course, we all know that Sarah Palin has become a figure of ridicule, at least outside of conservative circles. So it’s not a surprise that the authors join in. They tell of her shocking ignorance of current affairs, and her strange behaviour: at various points she seemed to freak out and go into a catatonic state, answering no one. We learn that the McCain campaign seriously considered the possibility that she was mentally unstable. Although she was successfully able to generate excitement among supporters, she could not break free of her reputation as unqualified, and ended up being an object of fascination but not support for the campaign – as the authors put it, ‘a hick on a high wire’.

In contrast to all of the other candidates, Obama comes across as a normal person, as well as a budding leader, in Game Change. There’s no real dirt. Unlike the others, he is said to be happily married. He responds well to adversity, such as when he recovers from the Jeremiah Wright associations by giving a highly praised speech on race relations. During the financial crisis, he is on the phone more than once a day with treasury secretary Hank Paulson, and (unlike Bush and McCain) is the one to take charge in Washington. ‘The crisis atmosphere created a setting in which his intellect, self-possession and unflappability were seen as leaderly qualities’, say the authors. And he has the maturity and magnanimity to pick his former opponent Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, despite all of the prior acrimony.

If there is intrigue around Obama in Game Change, it is not to do with him or his political circle, but with the Democrats around him. Following his breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic Party national convention, Obama became a ‘phenomenon’, as aides had to deal with 300 speaking invitations a week, and massive lines formed at his book signings. While there was genuine public enthusiasm for this outsider who burst into the Washington arena, Heilemann and Halperin reveal that, behind the scenes, the Democratic Party establishment was pushing this new arrival to run for president. In fact, according to Game Change, senators Harry Reid (the party’s majority leader), Charles Schumer (Hillary Clinton’s fellow New York senator) and other Democrats were urging Obama to run, while publicly backing Hillary. At one point early on in the race, Schumer even suggests that Obama needs ‘to take a two-by-four to Hillary’ (metaphorically) to prove he’s tough enough.

For a long time, the Clintons were considered the Democratic Party ‘establishment’, but as Heilemann and Halperin show, their supposedly strong support had become an empty shell. Behind their backs, supporters were defecting to Obama in droves, well before the primaries. In fact, in the first quarter of 2007 – Obama’s first quarter in the race – he raised more primary funds than Hillary. Given that this money came from the big-time bundlers, not the web, it indicated that Obama was the real establishment candidate. When Hollywood mogul David Geffen publicly turned on the Clintons, it was an emperor’s clothes moment, and more people began openly to support Obama. Yet Obama continued to run as the ‘outsider’, and Hillary as the ‘establishment’ candidate.

* * *

Game Change has been criticised for not providing a deeper analysis, a wider context. This is somewhat unfair: there is a place for character profiles, including on the campaign trail. Think of TH White’s classic The Making of the President, 1960. Of course, a personality sketch is more powerful if it is situated in its full social context, but even in isolation they should not be dismissed as un-serious. The question is more how well-drawn and accurate such portraits are, and if they truly capture the person’s personality and role at the time.

And that’s why I think a more legitimate criticism of Game Change has to do with the superficiality of the authors’ assessment of the candidates. It might be great gossip, but it doesn’t rise much above gossip. For instance, after all the bitchy comments about her, Hillary comes off looking the worst. The authors do recognise that she is tough, that she does not quit, but in the end the scales are tilted against her. Yet I have to say I came away more impressed by Hillary than I was during the campaign – but only from reading between the lines. Heilemann and Halperin, and even some of Hillary’s advisers, see as her as self-centred and slightly unhinged. But to me she came across as the only candidate (Obama included) with balls, willing to put herself forward in a direct way, and yet her efforts were reinterpreted as stubbornness or even madness. I could almost (I stress ‘almost’) feel sorry for her, as a symbol of old-style politics, watching the Obama phenomenon in bewilderment. She can’t figure out why so many had ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’, nor can she recognise that her arguments are uninspiring.

Not only are many of the portraits superficial, but it is hard to trust their accuracy, given that the book relies so much on anonymous sources. The authors claim this approach was necessary in order to get participants to talk, and that effectively it is worth it for the historical record (and, in using unattributed sources, they are following in the footsteps of other great writers, most prominently Bob Woodward). But a comment that is anonymous lacks public accountability: people can say something in confidence to the authors without having to defend it in public. This is especially troubling when there are only two people having the reconstructed conversation – it becomes he said/she said, so why should we believe Heilemann and Halperin’s source? Particularly when staffers from losing campaigns are probably inclined to try to restore their careers (don’t blame my lack of organisation skills, we had a nutcase for a candidate).

A broader question raised by the publication of Game Change has to do with loyalty among those in politics. Of course, backstabbing is not new. But it seems like disloyalty is a more widespread problem today. Many political staffers appear to have no strong beliefs, they’re just hired guns that move between candidates like others change jobs. Having so many people willing to spill the beans so soon after the event is just unseemly (and the same thing happened with the bestseller on the financial crisis, Too Big to Fail, which I reviewed in last month’s spiked review of books). Such selling-out undermines the capacity for political agents to act in coherent groups: how can anyone trust another if they know that there’s a good chance that what they say, supposedly in confidence, will be in a book in six months’ time?

Stepping back, Game Change seems very much a product of its times. In recent years, American politics has become increasingly focused on personality politics, less about ideas and more about personal characteristics. Like American Idol, individuals are suddenly discovered and rapidly ascend to the top: Obama, Sarah Palin, and now Scott Brown, the newly elected senator from Massachusetts (who, before he even stepped foot in the Senate, was being seriously considered 2012 presidential material by Republican strategists). In this age, perhaps a celebrity tell-all is the form that best matches the content of American politics.

US politicians invite voters to get to know them personally, and so they really don’t have grounds to complain when reporters like Heilemann and Halperin take them up on it and dig deeper. And in Game Change, the authors discover that the personalities of today’s political class are highly dysfunctional ones. It leads you to believe: if this is what politicians are like, no wonder people are cynical and looking for fresh faces.

Yet for all of the dirty laundry it airs, the ultimate message of Game Change is meant to be reassuring and de-activating. It one-sidedly makes the losing candidates appear like clowns, while Obama appears like a saint. We’re meant to conclude: thank God we elected the only sane one in the bunch. But this kind of says nothing really about political ideas and leadership. Obama may not cheat on his wife, he may not throw tantrums, but that does not mean, as Game Change implies, that he has inspiring policies and will be an effective president (in fact, he’s struggled in office so far). Conversely, just because a politician has personal shortcomings – has a mean temper, displays egotistical behaviour, whatever – it does not follow that he or she could not be, at the same time, a real leader with inspiring ideas. The real problem with the losing candidates was not so much their personality defects, as Game Change suggests – it was their tired and unengaging ideas.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is published by Harper Collins. The UK version, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House, is published by Viking. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the January 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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