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“Game Change” Book Review, A Little Late in the Game

Game Change by Jon Heilemann & Mark Halperin
Game Change by Jon Heilemann & Mark Halperin

I know this book came out months ago (and with it a storm of controversy) but I just reread it and felt I had to write it up. ‘Game Change‘ (Harper Books) is a truly captivating account of life on the inside of the inside of a presidential campaign. From the unlikely ascendancy of our now sitting president, to the fractious campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, the book lays bare all the scandalous things one suspects go on behind the scenes of political campaigns. It also masterfully captures the hallmarks of the modern political machine: The tension between the media and the candidates, the endless analysis of (and panicked reaction to) voter polls, and the swarming legions of advisors, spokespeople, aides, managers and consultants all jockeying for dominance backstage while the candidate on whose behalf they work regurgitates empty talking points, within an ever-narrowing scope of what is and what is not OK to say.

Frequently hilarious, consistently enlightening, and at times profoundly sad, ‘Game Change’ is one of those books that once you pick it up, no matter what your other commitments you want to read just one more page before setting it down…and then another page, and another and yet another.

The most salacious (and thus most entertaining) passages are those dedicated to Sarah Palin and her becoming McCain’s running mate (winning the “veepstakes” as it is known in political circles) and the unmitigated disaster that ensued. There are definitely hints that the writers (Jon Heilemann and Mark Halperin, of New York and Time magazines, respectively) take a measure of delight in recounting just how woefully unready Palin was to assume the VP role, but they lay equal if not more blame at the feet of McCain’s campaign management team. From the vetting process (completed for the Palin pick in a matter of hours as opposed to the several months it usually requires) to their insistence that she stay ‘on message’ – a demand that actually hamstrung Palin since her appeal was her natural and familiar demeanor, repressed under the strict rules of political engagement – the former Governor of Alaska had no chance of succeeding.

The book reminds us that all politics is really just theater, and its cast merely slight variations from their predecessors offering very little that is truly new or inspiring. Yet here is something terribly exciting about the whole spectacle – the debates, the conferences, the impassioned speeches. If you can forget for a while that what you are reading actually happened, that all the insincerity, the grand-standing, the back-biting, the broken promises and crushed hopes all centered around real events involving real people, it makes for a hell of a story.

Bonus Review: Trail Fever – Michael Lewis

Trail Fever by Michael Lewis
Trail Fever by Michael Lewis

The 1996 election will be remembered for being so entirely forgettable. Michael Lewis, author of ‘The Blind Side’ and ‘The Big Short’, spent almost a year on the campaign trail with the likes of Pat Buchanan, Bob Dole and the endlessly quotable Morry Taylor. First of all, this is a funny book, a VERY funny book, made all the more amusing by Lewis’ deadpan prose. He shows up the absurdity of the political game and all its peacockery by recounting it in the plainest of terms and the effect is hilarious.

He also shows how the candidates are hemmed in by their own fear of losing and go to absurd lengths to never say anything that they might be called to account for later on: the goal is to say as little as you possibly can whilst appearing to say a lot – not an easy task even for the most verbally dexterous amongst us (which Dole, to cite an exceptional example, was not).  Lewis also draws attention to the central contradiction of candidates like Buchanan: That, in appealing to the libertarian crowd, they have to say they hate government whilst spending countless hours and millions of dollars trying to advance a career in it.

It was particularly interesting to read this right after reading Game Change, in that you see so many of the same names (and all their quirks and idiosyncrasies) cropping up in both stories. I was trying to think of a pithy phrase with which to end this review and I could only come up with one (with a subtle alteration): the more things Change, the more they stay the same.