Thursday, September 23, 2010


Game Change By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

By Matt Maul
Respected historian Stephen Ambrose liked to tell an anecdote about having been contacted by President Eisenhower to write his biography. However, as reported by Richard Rayner in a New Yorker article, such a request probably never took place. John Eisenhower, son of the late president, said that Ambrose had a "tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache."

One of my favorite contemporary "nonfiction" authors, Bob Woodward, writes in a style that often reads like a novel. More than a few people have questioned the veracity of Woodward's reporting. Still, at the end of the day, I can walk away from a work by Ambrose or Woodward feeling that I was given a fair and accurate telling of history.

Not so much the case with this year's Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Heilemann and Halperin's previous effort, The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008, was more political analysis than reportage. So, one could forgive the subjective musings which were freely mixed in with factual content. However, Game Change is a purported to be a chronicle of events leading up to Barack Obama's victory over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Thus, I held the duo to a different standard in terms of accuracy.

Heilemann and Halperin received no small amount of criticism because of the fact that they cited no references for the events they present. In researching Game Change, "deep background" interviews were conducted with "junior staffers and the candidates themselves as well as a review of e-mails, memos, contemporaneous notes, recordings, schedules, and other forms of documentation."

They note right at the start:
Although no work of this kind, lacking the distance and perspective of time, can hope to be definitive, we are convinced that some answers are more readily discovered in the ground that lies between history and journalism — precisely the spot that we were aiming for and believe this book occupies.

Fair enough. After its release, some of the more scandalous events depicted in Game Change subsequently made their way into public discourse. This included:

  • Harry Reid's ill chosen remark about Barack Obama being a good African-American candidate because he was "light-skinned" "with no Negro dialect." Reid apologized for this after the book's publication.
  • Bill Clinton's suggestion to Ted Kennedy that Obama should be getting them coffee rather than be their party's standard bearer. In fairness to Clinton, his comment had nothing to do with pigmentation (as did Reid's remark) but was a criticism of Obama's lack of experience.
  • John Edwards' affair with the woman supposedly creating video pieces for his campaign.
  • John McCain's confused and aimless "seat of the pants" campaign style.
  • Sarah Palin's meltdown on the campaign trail which Game Change suggests was due to her suffering from post-partum depression. I found this item to be particularly interesting. Had such a charge been directed at a less polarizing female political figure than Palin, a firestorm would have almost certainly ensued (such as when Newt Gingrich suggested that menstrual cycles made women solders less effective in combat situations). Of course, this “revelation” hasn’t stopped Andrew Sullivan (a “respected” political blogger) from yammering on about Trig Palin actually being Bristol Palin’s first illegitimate child (the other “birther” conspiracy).

The first two-thirds of Game Change covers the Barack Obama campaign which seemingly came out of nowhere to rob heir apparent Hillary Clinton of her chance to be the Democratic Party's nominee.

The final third looks at McCain’s ham-handed, lackluster, doomed-from-the-start efforts which were only temporarily buoyed by the Hail Mary selection of minor political rock star (albeit untested) Sarah Palin for the second spot.

Much of what Heilemann and Halperin chronicle already had been reported at the time. However, Game Change linearly lays everything out in one place while providing an “inside baseball” perspective. As I said, there is no footnotes section citing sources for each chapter’s content. So, one is left having to trust the authors. And, as I’ll show in a few examples below, this is where the book falls short for me.

Who Do You Trust?

The very first sentence of the book’s prologue gave me pause.
Barack Obama jerked bolt upright in bed at three o’clock in the morning. Darkness enveloped his low-rent room at the Des Moines Hampton Inn; the airport across the street was quiet in the hours before dawn. It was very late December 2007, a few days ahead of the Iowa caucuses… Obama always slept soundly, like the dead. But now he found himself wide awake, heart pounding, consumed by a thought at once electric and daunting: I might win this thing.

Did Heilemann and Halperin get this directly from Barack Obama or his wife Michelle? My first thought was that the incident seemed too convenient a reference to Hillary Clinton’s “It's 3:00 AM: Who Do You Want To Answer The Phone?” television ad which ran during the Democratic primaries. I suppose life could imitate art. But this felt a little like Ambrose’s “narrative panache” to me and I hadn’t even gotten into the meat of Game Change yet.

Are You Ready for Some Football

On page 71 of Game Change, Heilemann and Halperin write (bold added):
Obama returned to Chicago from New Hampshire, but he wasn't quite finished with his hyperdrive round of buzz-building. He'd begun his sprint at Saddleback with an act of outreach to one religious constituency and now he ended with a play for another: the nation's pro-football fanatics who were greeted with the sight of Obama at the start of the December 11 ABC broadcast of Monday Night Football.

This is a straight out factual error. By the time of the “December 11 broadcast” referenced, Monday Night Football had switched networks to ESPN.

Was I being overly critical here? Maybe. Dammit Jim, I'm a blogger not a reporter!

So, I asked a friend of mine with impeccable journalistic credentials. Bill McGraw worked as a Detroit Free Press reporter and columnist for 30 years. In 2009, the Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the text message scandal involving former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Included in the award were stories for which McGraw was listed as a contributor. He’d know better than me.

In his opinion, the incorrect reference to ABC was NOT a small mistake. SOMEONE should have caught it. Especially, he said, when one considers that the book was responsible for stirring up so much trouble for the principles named within.

You Like Me, You Really Like Me

Page 180 of Game Change describes an exchange during one of the Democratic primary debates involving Hillary Clinton’s “likability” (again, bold added):
A few minutes later one of the moderators asked what Hillary would say to voters who regarded Obama as more likable than her. "Well, that hurts my feelings, but I'll try to go on," she said, with a wistful smile. "He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm thatbad."
Obama glanced up from his notes and said icily, "You're likable enough, Hillary."


I happened to have watched that debate and felt that Barack Obama was being anything but "icy" toward Clinton. In fact, I found his off-hand comment outright cordial to Hillary and dismissive of the question. But judge for yourself from the actual exchange.

Does he seem to be “icy” here? My take was that Heilemann and Halperin wanted to use the incident to advance the storyline of tension between the two campaigns they develop in Game Change. This tension probably existed. But their depiction of this moment from a debate as proof of it is at odds with reality.

The Pit Bull That Didn’t Bark

Finally, while campaigning just a few days after the Republican nominating convention, Obama created a minor controversy by an unfortunate turn of phrase seeming to compare Sarah Palin to a pig.

From page 375:
The day before Palin set off back to Alaska, Obama was in Virginia, too, and he offered an observation about McCain's new message of change. "I guess his whole angle is 'Watch out, George Bush — except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics — we're really going to shake things up in Washington,'" he said at a rally. "That's not change. That's just calling something [that's] the same thing different. You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."

The McCain campaign was perfectly aware that Obama was making no allusion to Palin's lipstick-on-a-pit-bull convention line; the lipstick-on-a-pig phrase was common parlance, particularly in politics.

I agree that the McCain campaign engaged in the worst sort of hyperbole (bordering on the ridiculous) when they accused Obama of sexism. But what the passage leaves out is the audience’s standing ovation when Obama says "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." Remember, Palin’s "pitbull with lipstick" catchphrase had just swept the nation. Clearly, the partisan audience connected what Obama had said in his speech to Palin's "lipstick" line. Otherwise, isn't their applause a gross overreaction to something the authors characterize as “common parlance?”

In my opinion, Obama realized that he had misspoke once the words came out of his mouth. As the crowd stands and cheers, note how he quickly adds a safer metaphor comparing McCain’s policies to a rotting fish. One could argue that I'm making a meaningless distinction. But Game Change commits a sin of omission here that when combined with the items I've noted (and others I haven't), undermines my faith in its version of events.

And that's a fatal flaw in a book of this type.

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When they were promoting the hell out of this book, it seemed to me that most of the "revelations" were things that already had been reported. They also seemed ridiculous refusing to reveal sources even after some, such as Harry Reid, admitted that they were the source. Halperin just bugs me. He's so smug with that constant smirk when he's on TV, I just want to leap through the set and slap him. Besides, as a pundit, he's usually wrong.
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