Failing up and writing down.
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.
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The Game Change Game
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.