My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
The most pleasurable parts of the Game Change books are invariably the frothiest, most gossipy moments. This entry (and its 2008 predecessor) don’t tell us anything new about the elections they cover so much as they re-tell them through the eyes of people who don’t have the reader’s benefit of hindsight. The experience isn’t insightful so much as it is self-congratulatory, as we applaud ourselves for understanding where the narrative is going to go before it does.
A good example of this is Double Down’s single most entertaining “scene”—the moment when Clint Eastwood takes the stage at the Republican convention and, rather than give the quick 7-minute speech he had been assigned, decides to improvise a Bob-Hope-style comedy back-and-forth with an empty chair. Everyone who picks up the book knows this moment, perhaps the single most bizarre in the entire campaign, will be covered. Everyone knows how it’s going to blow up. The authors treat the build-up to the convention like the build-up in a horror novel, starting with the optimism of the strategists who reach out to Eastwood (who seems to have been interviewed on background for the book), slowly introducing the details that lead the idea to take root in Eastwood’s mind, building to the moment by showing campaign staffers going about their business with no idea of the storm that’s about to hit, and finally unfolding in operatic frenzy: strategists screaming and vomiting backstage, running into each other in the halls, one of them yelling “This is a nightmare! This can’t be happening!” It’s wonderful entertainment, and almost thoroughly-reported enough to make you forget that Eastwood’s appearance initially had its defenders during the election.
Which brings us to the primary problem with the Game Change books (aside from apparently being written in a supremely hostile workplace environment, the facts of which have prevented a 2016 entry from ever seeing publication): the stories you read always come off at least a little as a self-serving exercise in political ass-covering. Strategists from every major campaign of the 2012 primaries and election seem to have talked to Halperin and Heilemann, and each one is doing so in an attempt to influence the historical view of the campaign.
I have no doubt that Halperin and Heliemann are as committed to ferreting out the truth through corroborating sources as Halperin apparently was to sexually terrorizing his female subordinates, but the truth is that this gossipy approach to journalism does have its limits—you can see it in the way that every politician seems to be surrounded by advisors who just happen to have the right advice, but who are slow to accept it due to their own irrational obsessions. Surely this couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the strategists are far more likely to talk to the authors than the candidates are! There’s also the fact that the Clintons appear much more prominently in the book than they did in the election—you get the sense that the authors, anticipating Hillary’s 2016 run, are trying to curry favor with their sources in Clintonland by making Bill and her such a big part of the story.
In limited defense of the process by which the book was written, it inadvertently creates a secondary level of enjoyment, as you can engage in a sort of meta-reading of the text where you try to figure out who fed the authors a certain piece of information, and to what purpose, and who confirmed it. You can trace fissure lines in the Obama and Romney campaigns, and speculate about whether the brief appearance of Trumpian language in the book’s omniscient narration indicates that the authors are paraphrasing an interview with Donald Trump (whose idiomatic style they ably re-create).
The second problem with these books is that they are only as fun as the elections they cover. This is more a problem for this book than its predecessor. Like the 2012 campaign, it briefly comes to life through the Republican primaries and convention, and builds up some steam after Obama “loses” the first debate (the fact that being detail-oriented and specific in his responses apparently turned off a huge proportion of the voting population is still the most depressing fact about this election), but a lot of it feels like a long march to a foregone conclusion, interspersed by interminable debates in the Romney camp about whether the election is “a referendum or a choice,” which is apparently what those guys get paid the big bucks to decide. It’s a testament to the book’s authors that the march has as many entertaining anecdotes as it does (seriously, though, future political writers, take a hint and don’t use your research and support staff as your personal groping-bags).
Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing Double Down: Game Change 2012, just follow the link below: