Back when Theodore White did his groundbreaking book The Making of the President 1960, it was easy to write about elections. Most Americans didn't know very much about how campaigns actually worked. These days, we're all experts on push-polling, NASCAR dads, and those oddball Iowa caucuses. For an election book to register now, it must offer something new, something hot. It has to dish.
If any account of the 2008 campaign does just that it's Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, a laughably written yet highly readable book that The Economist has described as "high quality political porn." Because most of its pages rehearse yet again the campaign's greatest hits — you know, Bill Clinton's gaffes, Obama's trouble with Reverend Wright, Palin's disastrous interview with Katie Couric — its real selling point is its juicy stuff. That Harry Reid talked about Obama's lack of "Negro dialect." That McCain's aides thought Palin unfit to be Veep. And that Elizabeth Edwards behaved hideously to her husband's campaign staff.
Such TMZ-ish revelations have won the book lots of headlines. But Game Change also raises questions about a certain kind of political reporting.
The first is about sourcing. To get their scoops, the authors have relied on so-called "deep-background" interviews with anonymous sources. They've taken a lot of criticism for this approach, which seemingly allows disgruntled losers to say just about anything under a cloak of secrecy. Now, this doesn't mean that what Heileman and Halperin describe didn't happen. They're solid reporters and when they say something took place, I believe them. Indeed, both Reid and Edwards essentially acknowledge that they did what the book says they did.
The trouble with blind sources has less to do with facts than with what those facts mean. Early on, we're told that Hillary Clinton freaked out so much upon losing in Iowa that one of her most senior aides thought, "This woman shouldn't be president" — a judgment so damning the authors naturally put it in italics. I don't doubt that this happened, yet a lot depends on whose judgment we're getting. Was this unnamed aide someone Clinton turned on? Did he or she quit the campaign because Hillary was unfit? Or was this simply the kind of angry thought we all have in the heat of the moment and then vanishes the next day? If we don't know the story's source, we can't assess whether it's a serious judgment of Hillary — or just a cheap shot.
To say this is to confront another problem — the inability to see what really matters in a campaign. Favoring gossip over analysis, Heilemann and Halperin can't be bothered to discuss substantive things like Clinton's vote for the Iraq War Resolution - it only matters to them as an electoral liability — or the way that Obama's early big-money backers were rich Wall Street bundlers, a fact that might just have some bearing on how he's handled the financial crisis.
Instead, Game Change traffics in anecdotes that usually make Obama look good — he won, after all — and make the losers look petty, sleazy, or worse. They show us McCain flipping off his wife Cindy while showering her with F-bombs. As for Elizabeth Edwards, the authors happily debunk her saintly image, telling us that her husband's team saw her as "an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman."
I realize that journalism is not a gentlemanly business, but I'm not sure there's any reason — other than a desire for sales — to tell us about a defeated candidate's marital spats or take such ungallant glee in trashing a woman with life-threatening cancer and an adulterous husband whose political career is now kaput. Such an approach only feeds public cynicism, the belief that those running for office are all creeps and phonies.
I don't want to sound like a sucker, but the truth is more complicated — and more interesting. Politics is about character, of course, often bad character. But it's also about values, ideas and, yes, even policies. What makes presidential candidates so endlessly fascinating is that their whole life becomes a negotiation between their almost-pathological ambition and their idealistic dreams of how they'd like to remake the world. It's a negotiation that includes us, the American people, who have ambitions and desires of our own.
Never was this a grander story than in 2008, the greatest presidential campaign of our lives, and it's depressing to see men as smart as Heilemann and Halperin fritter it all away. Finishing their book, I realized that they hadn't told me a single important thing I didn't already know. On the contrary, they've taken an election that proved how big this country really is and made it seem as small as a reality show.