Reading List: “Game Change” – Heilemann & Halperin

(I’m sure many blogs are delving deeply into the recent SOTU Address and the analysis thereof.  But the SOTU has become such partisan political demonstration, I have a hard time even reading the media analyses, let alone actually watching the speeches themselves.  So today I’ll stick to a less aggravating topic, political history.)

Game Change was written by two political journalists, John Heilemann (New York) and Mark Halperin (Time). Both are regular contributors on Joe Scarborough’s morning MSNBC offering, Morning Joe.

Game Change takes a look at the 2008 U.S. Presidential race, including the critical Democratic primary run-up that saw the rise of Barack Obama to national prominence.

By far the most interesting aspect of the book is the meteoric rise of Obama, and the unseating of Hillary Clinton as heir to the throne.  John Kerry’s decision to invite a little known State Senator from Illinois to give a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention resulted in recognition on a national level of Obama as a charismatic leader with the potential to unite and excite the various factions with in the Democratic Party.

But the depth and breadth of his appeal with little experience at the national level and absolutely no executive background puzzled many.

In one scene (p. 65) – to which many of us who watched this drama from the Republican side can relate –  a white woman in an Iowa focus group leading up to the caucuses there states, “There’s something about that guy; that’s the guy I want. I can’t even put it in words.”  The occurrence nicely summarizes the phenomena that launched his successful quest for The Oval Office.  Who is this guy?  How did he get here?  What’s the appeal?

For me, it’s a fascinating story. 

The play between the Obama and Clinton camps is the best part of the story.  Hillary actually coaches the newly elected Senator Obama during his very short stint in The Senate (141 days).  Yet the animosity for the Clintons within the Democratic Party, which lies just beneath the facade of support demonstrated by party leaders becomes all too easy for Obama to tap.  Just goes to show that if you’re considered the playground bully – as the Clintons were, it doesn’t take much to instigate a palace revolt!

Obama slowly starts to pull in party support and endorsements, including the defection of Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor who served as Secretary of Energy and Ambassador to the U.N. in Bill Clinton’s administration.  And the theme of the book quickly becomes the befuddlement of the Clintons as political rugs are pulled out from beneath them time and again. 

Of course my first reaction to all this, as it peaked during the caucus and primary season in the summer of ’08, was not particularly flattering.  I kept recalling the campaign and election of James Earl (Jimmy) Carter.  I would shudder when I recalled all the excitement and media frenzy surrounding the peanut farmer with the big toothy smile.  Ever since, I can’t look at Planter’s Peanuts commercials featuring Mr. Peanut without getting nauseous.  Afterall, Carter has to go down as one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history.  I can still see the cardigan sweater-clad Carter sitting leisurely by a fireplace as he chided America about its defeatist attitude, which would later be described by Carter staffers as a national “malaise”.  Just a complete lack of leadership …

On the other hand, John Edwards and his late wife, Elizabeth, do not fare well in Game Change.  From John’s $400-1200 haircuts, his Rielle Hunter affair, and the knock-down drag-out fights it produces between them to Elizabeth’s unfortunate bout with cancer, her high maintenance needs and general surliness towards everyone, it’s an ugly picture.  How exactly Edwards thought he could pull off an affair with the attention-whore Hunter and still think he could be a good president is simply mind-boggling.  It’s the height of self-absorbed elitism.

Once Obama seals the Democratic nomination, the story turns to John McCain and Sarah Palin.  They come out looking better than the Edwards’, but not by much.  McCain comes off as an aloof candidate, prone to angry outbursts sprinkled with expletives; more concerned about dinner plans with his much younger wife, Cindi, than he is about campaign issues.  This includes a White House strategy session McCain instigates to offer his plans to right the economy during the banking crises.  McCain arrives at the meeting completely unprepared.  Obama end up doing a much better job of presenting his views and call to action.  As a result, even Bush43 wonders what the heck McCain’s point was in betting his political life by proposing the crises meeting.  

Sarah Palin shows her ability to wow a crowd, but becomes more of a drag on a sinking McCain candidacy.  Her obliviousness to even the most rudimentary political and foreign policy issues is alarming for anyone who was concerned about her readiness for the international spotlight.  I’m not a fan of hers, so some might conclude I’m letting the media influence me.  But there’s an awful lot of baggage there.  In the end though, it was the McCain campaign that did her in by shoving her into the national spotlight when she wasn’t ready for the national stage.

As you can see there’s a lot of meaty political nastiness and intrigue in Game Change.  Even as an avid reader, I NEVER read books on politics.  Political history, biographies?  Absolutely!  (Pick up some of Edmund Morris’ works on Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan!)  But never political tomes. 

But I was fascinated by the 2008 campaigns …  the changing fortunes of the Clintons, the meteoric rise of Obama, the RNC settling for an indifferent and low-energy McCain, Palin, the Edwardses …  It was a political soap opera.  If you feel – like I do – that the 2008 election cycle was so atypical for what we have grown used to over the past 20 years or so, you should definitely pick this book up! 

4 stars out of 5

(Hope you enjoyed this.  It’s been DECADES since I did a book report!)

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