The new book Game Change, about the historic 2008 presidential campaign, has inspired screaming headlines, intramural finger-pointing and a senatorial apology to President Obama and his family.
But the book by veteran political reporters John Heilemann of New York magazine and Mark Halperin of Time magazine has stirred questions within the news profession, as well. Most notably, the question of how much trust readers should place in a 448-page book that contains not a single footnote or on-the-record interview.
The two authors say they were merely following a robust non-tradition, especially in political books. They pointed to the classic by Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes, about the 1988 campaign.
"From the very outset, we wanted to try to write a book that was narrative-driven, that was character-driven," Heilemann says. "I don't think you can make the point enough times of the gap between the private image and the public lives of the people running for president. We tried to show, in vivid ways, that gap."
As the authors explain in a note to readers, the book relied on extensive interviews with 200 leading figures from the political realm to present the story in an omniscient voice. But each interview occurred on what they called "deep background," which they said meant that everything they learned could be used but never attributed — even indirectly.
Melinda Henneberger, a former reporter for the New York Times and Newsweek who is now editor in chief of PoliticsDaily.com, said she was surprised they could come up with so much juicy material about a campaign already picked over by numerous volumes. She said it provided insight beyond the more authorized accounts that might have been scrubbed by key political players of unflattering episodes.
But Henneberger says she has qualms about the authors' methods.
"Because these are two journalists with the reputation for accuracy and fairness — and they are — we're really being asked to trust on faith that everything in it is completely accurate without the kind of sourcing you would have to have for a news story," Henneberger says.
As a result, she says, PoliticsDaily.com did not write about intimate scenes — contained in the book — showing the dysfunctional relationship between John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, amid the revelation of his marital infidelity.
The book includes plenty of other intriguing revelations. Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid has apologized for offensive remarks he made about then-candidate Obama's racial appeal to whites. Game Change also chronicled the depths of Edwards' self-deception about his dwindling political viability. And it offers an account of the fateful conversation between former President Clinton and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy that helped cement Kennedy's endorsement for Sen. Obama over Hillary Clinton.
On page 218, the authors write:
Bill then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.
Heilemann and Halperin explain in their authors' note that reconstructed dialogue in direct quotes "came from the speaker, someone who was present and heard the remark, contemporaneous notes or transcripts." A paraphrase, as in the Clinton-Kennedy exchange, reflects "only a lack of certainty on the part of our sources about precise wording, not about the nature of the statements," they wrote.
Some critics who have parsed the account of Clinton and Kennedy conclude that it is a secondhand account of an anecdote told by a dead man about what a third person said. In that reading, the source for the authors might well have been Kennedy's unnamed friend.
Interviewed jointly by NPR on Thursday, Heilemann and Halperin say they were painstaking in their reporting and reconstruction — pointing to the Kennedy-Clinton anecdote as perfect evidence.
"We have more than one source," Halperin tells NPR. "And, in fact, it's a good example of a case where we were extremely judicious. ... As with our other paraphrases, there's no doubt from our reporting that that represents not just the essence of what [Clinton] said, but very close to exactly what he said."
According to Heilemann, "We think it worked out very well in terms of serving the public interest and getting us what we wanted to get — which was an unvarnished look at the high human drama of this campaign."
They say that's how reporters can get politically savvy figures to yield accounts of sensitive moments. And some of the sources may be easily enough guessed. In a vignette on page 59, longtime Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett is reported to have seen the senator cry once he was leaning toward running for president. The authors write:
He's not emoting about the past, Jarrett thought. He's emoting about the future. About the fact that the sacrifices he's imposed on his family are only just beginning.
Dollars to senior White House advisers, the source in that case was Valerie Jarrett. Similarly, it's hard to imagine anyone other than a particular New England lawmaker was conveying the inner thoughts of Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd when Game Change described him as being annoyed by "this rigmarole Hillary Clinton was spouting."
But plenty of reporters recount sensitive materials for articles, and especially books, while giving readers either the identity of their sources or some explicit context in which to judge them.
New Yorker writer and author Jane Mayer had hundreds of footnotes in her book The Dark Side, about torture during the George W. Bush years.
In the December issue of a peer-reviewed academic journal, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar broke the story of the scramble by White House officials to thwart a feared terrorist plot against President Obama's inauguration last January.
She got her scoop with on-the-record interviews with former Bush White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
"When I do interviews, I do them on the record. I have a tape recorder. I put it down, turn it on and say what the ground rules are," Kumar says.
When reporters don't grant anonymity to sources, Kumar concedes, "you probably wouldn't get the same kind of quotes — the very juicy quotes. But is that what a book's about?"