Sunday, May 29, 2011

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

Harper Collins, 2010: 448 pp

I was not sure what to make of this book when I picked it up. On the inside of the cover flap, the following quote stared out at me: "You know, this shit would be really interesting if we weren't in the middle of it." It turns out that this was one of President Obama's favorite quotes according to the authors. The book relies on information from "nearly 100 interviews with over 200 people between July 2008 and September 2009" (ix). All were done on "deep background", meaning the sources are unidentified. I have some reservations about that, but will not throw out the book.

One is instantly struck by the disparity on the political parties. The first 270 pages focus on the Democratic Nomination campaign, and roughly 80% of that is focused on the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Only the last 160 pages of the book deal with the general election, but certain personalities dominate the book, so a reader can guess which campaign insiders gave the most "deep background" info.

Those are: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. This makes sense, as they were the four most compelling stories of the 2008 campaign. Hillary comes across as seeing herself as entitled to the nomination, Obama comes across as distant, unapproachable and seemingly unflappable. John Edwards comes across as a jack ass. I mean, a real jack ass. Palin comes across as you would expect her to depending on your political leanings:

1. Small town egotist plucked out of anonymity to run for a job she was in no way ready for
2. Small town regular person who did a good job as governor sabotaged by a rampant liberal media, or
3. A colossal mistake by the McCain campaign, who took a little more than two days to investigate Palin's credentials. The Palin even omitted answers on her questionnaire for the campaign after she was picked. That should have told them something.

It is the media coverage, though, that is the real specter in this text. Keep in mind that some of these people were plotting a run for president in....July 2006. John Kerry's idiotic 2004 campaign was not really even cold by the time a few of these individuals started to cast around. The coverage of Clinton and Obama is deftly organized by the authors. Was Obama handled with "kid gloves" as Bill Clinton stated, or was that just sour grapes on the part of someone who felt that everyone should vote for her. No one candidate was happy with the coverage of any of the other candidates or of themselves. One gets the idea that the media could do a better job but it too close to the candidates to do so.

The real legacy of the 1988 Dukakis vs. Bush and the 1992 and 1996 Clinton campaigns is on full display. The handlers do not really talk about policy any more than the candidates themselves, but instead attempt to manipulate not their own candidate's image, but their opponents image. This should not be a surprise to anyone who pays attention to political campaigns, but it should bother us as voters and citizens. Our leaders discuss images, not issues. Make no mistake, this book is about images and not a campaign. This does not mean it is a bad text; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But, there are larger issues here. Let's beat the dead horse that is Palin, for instance.

The book centers on her ability to learn by rote, her attempts to cram knowledge into her head that even I knew at the time and all the other assorted mine fields she stumbled through (Couric, for example.) What is not really discussed, except through quotes from Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, is WHY McCain picked Palin, did not vet her properly and loosed who is an insufferable egotist upon a campaign for which she was simply not ready. It's not her fault; hell, she has parlayed three months of absolute fucking idiocy into a national political career. I blame McCain's campaign. Senator (at that time) Joe Biden said it best: "Who the hell is Sarah Palin?" It strikes me as the equivalent of the mayor of my hometown in the 1980s suddenly tabbed to run for vice president of the U.S. It just should not happen. But, at the same time, she did have one thing going for her, the same thing that Obama did: she did not have the stink of Washington on her. Obama did have the stink of Ivy League elitism; the Clintons have the stench of both and so does Edwards. The pick reeked of desperation to continue this olfactory metaphor. This is what the title refers to; a "Game Change" shifts the frame of media discourse. Alas, it does not change what happens in Washington.

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