Commentary Magazine

The Game Change Game

Two years after its publication, Game Change, the bestselling account of the 2008 presidential campaign, remains a landmark in political journalism. This spring it was given renewed life, even in the midst of a new election campaign, when it became a movie on HBO. But the landmark status of Game Change the best-seller owes nothing to its qualities as a book. And yet, when I fished out the early reviews, I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were raves!

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote, Game Change leaves the reader with “a vivid, visceral sense of the campaign and a keen understanding of the paradoxes and contingencies of history.” Clive Crook, a columnist for the Financial Times, praised the authors’ prose style. Joe Scarborough, host of a TV chat ’n’ grunt show, said Game Change was “the best presidential political book since What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer and Teddy White’s books.”

Now, I read Game Change when it came out, and though I confidently predicted that it would be ignored and soon sink into obscurity, I stand by my assertion that whether judged as a book or a sociological artifact, it is atrocious—a landmark, yes, but still atrocious. The prose that Clive Crook found so alluring shows the care and ingenuity we might expect from a schoolboy who’s lost his Ritalin. Naughty words are a specialty—page after page of them, in hearsay accounts of explosive conversations, in interior monologues, even in the authors’ own voice.

“Hillary went apeshit” is one elegant example. But they don’t need to resort to profanity to write crudely: “The Times made Bill [Clinton] especially mental”; and, tossing their metaphors into the air just to see where they land, the authors continue, “What cranked up the thermostat on Clinton’s umbrage were signs he saw that the Obama campaign was stirring the pot with liberal media outlets”; and I could go on, believe me.

And if Game Change explores the “paradoxes and contingencies of history,” as Michiko Kakutani says, then Harold and the Purple Crayon is a meditation upon Euclidean theory. As for Scarborough’s comparisons, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes is one of the few works of political reporting that deserves the overworked adjective magisterial—it is journalism of a heightened kind, approaching literature. If you think Game Change approaches literature, you’re mental.

Scarborough’s comparison to Theodore H. White is more apt and much more revealing. White, of course, was the homunculus chronicler of presidential campaigns from Kennedy to Reagan, inventing a genre of campaign book as he went along and spawning a pestilence of imitators who claimed to give us the “inside story” of presidential politics. White was fascinated, often indiscriminately, by the machinery of national politics and the men who made it go, and his public-spirited aim in undraping the inside story was to edify a self-governing citizenry. His writing had the high sheen typical of rewrite men from Time and Life, and as a patrician with a patrician’s taste, he had no professional interest in gossip. 

The authors of Game Change—a pair of magazine reporters called Mark Halperin and John Heilemann—have no more use for White’s civic uplift than they do for his fastidious prose. Their chief concern, and the cause of their book’s commercial success, is gossip of an exceptionally lurid kind. No one who read Game Changewill forget a confrontation between John Edwards and his wife shortly after her breast cancer surgery. “As their aides tried to look away she tore off her blouse, exposing herself,” the authors write. “‘Look at me!’ she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground.”

A squalid anecdote like this has the unintended effect of exposing the relationship between reporters and the political professionals they report and rely on. After all, at least one of those aides trying delicately to avert his eyes from Mrs. Edwards soon became the anonymous source who recounted her misery and personal deterioration to the authors—as neat a violation of privacy and betrayal of trust as you’re likely to find. Game Change is built from such betrayals, and that is what elevated (or lowered) it to landmark status. It is both a portrait of our journo-political culture and an artifact of it. And nowhere is that clearer than in its treatment of Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt.

Wallace and Schmidt are citizens of this world, from the Republican hemisphere, which is one reason the HBO producers plucked their story from countless others in the book, most of them involving fratricidal Democrats, to serve as the movie’s plot. Game Change the movie recounts their frantic and doomed efforts to turn Sarah Palin into a presentable vice presidential candidate. Schmidt was the manager of John McCain’s campaign, Wallace its communications specialist. The careers of both are models of the Washington phenomenon known as “failing up.” Wallace rose to the presidential campaign as a public-relations whiz from her central role in the final years of President George W. Bush’s second administration, easily the most incompetent public-relations operation in presidential history. Schmidt, starting as a small-time consultant for state races in California, leapt from one loss to the next until he landed at the very top of his trade, running a national presidential campaign.

Neither has a discernible political ideology. As professionals, they are practical people; as journalistic sources, Game Change inadvertently reveals, they are keenly self-interested. Both take a provisional attitude toward truth-telling. During the campaign, for instance, Nicolle Wallace told TV viewers that Sarah Palin was “political gold,” “an asset to this campaign and to this country.” In fact, she and Schmidt believed Palin was a political disaster and that her election, so they say now, would place the country in peril. Schmidt, to cite another small example, reassured the public that Palin’s “selection came after a six-month-long rigorous vetting process where her extraordinary credentials and exceptionalism became clear.” In fact, the vetting process was abrupt and slipshod.

Neither of these particular lies appears in the sympathetic account that Game Change (book and movie) offers of Wallace and Schmidt. Instead, as compensation for the inside information they furnished against their former bosses—Palin of course was their special target—a reader of Game Change will barely grasp their dazzling incompetence.

The movie glides by the moment when McCain “suspended” his campaign in the fall of 2008 and flew back to Washington to “deal with” the financial crisis—the most childishly histrionic move in political memory, a bright idea of Schmidt’s that sealed the candidate’s reputation for personal instability and economic illiteracy. Wallace escapes blame for the first and most damaging crisis that engulfed Palin, a false report saying the would-be vice president had indulged a $50,000 clothing binge at the campaign’s expense. Wallace herself, Game Change viewers and readers will not learn, had managed the fashion makeover that gave rise to the erroneous report. Probably for that reason, she did little to quash it once it took off.

Game Change shows that the promise of letting viewers in on the “inside story” has its limits. For one inside story remains defiantly untold: how the symbiosis between reporters and sources requires elisions and omissions and fudged details that play to the benefit of one or the other or both. This was probably true in Theodore White’s day, too. The difference now is that the authors of Game Change want to tell a story of political pathology through the gossipy tales that magnify the dysfunction. This requires insiders to turn on one another or the politicians they served, and of course the insiders are more than happy to oblige, so long as their own interests are protected. 

They leave us with a version of the liar’s dilemma: Were they lying when they said (for instance) their candidate was political gold, or are they lying now when they make it clear they were lying then? In one sense, I suppose, it doesn’t matter. They’re liars either way—honored participants in the daisychain of deceit that spins within the inside of the inside story.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who appears monthly in this space, is the author of Crazy U, now out in paperback and on the Kindle.

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