Friday, December 13, 2013

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann is a guilty pleasure for me. This is not something that I would normally read, nor is it a book that I would usually blog about. In fact, I even considered not putting up a post about it. Though I would describe myself of something of a political junkie, I never read books on current or political events (but I do read lots of articles and opinion pieces). As there is so much to read and so little time to do it in, I try to keep my reading of books confined to what I consider universal and timeless themes. Thus, this book constitutes a bit of “light reading.” Kind of like my Fifty Shades of Grey (OK, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration:))

I just could not resist this one however. Having read and enjoyed these authors’ previous Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime that covered the 2008 American Presidential election, I just had to delve into this foray on the 2012 contest. Both Halperin and Heilemann are pundits commonly scene on various American Public affairs programs. I must first comment that there is a stereotype that such programs are teeming with over opinionated talking heads propagandizing and/or yelling at each other. While such nonsense is indeed common, there are also plenty of programs, both on television and on the radio, that fly under the radar, where adults discuss, analyze and at times calmly debate issues. It is these types of programs that these particular authors frequent. 

This work is not about policy or substantive issues, instead it is about the art, perhaps better described as warfare, of politics. This book is almost entirely dedicated to the tactics and strategy of winning elections. Policies and ideologies are not judged here. To the extent that they are analyzed, it is done so in the context of how they effect elections. There is also a great emphasis on the personalities of both the candidates and the political operatives involved in the campaigns.

All the candidates, potential candidates and campaigns are put under the microscope. This includes not just the Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s operations, but most of the Republican primary participants including Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman and their respective campaigns are scrutinized. The book is wonky and is filed with all sorts of details regarding the foibles and triumphs of its subjects.

A key issue concerning a book like this is credibility. Every page is packed with information concerning conversations, strategy decisions, incidents, etc. that relate to the campaigns. There are mountains of really bad books concerning recent American politics out there. If it turned out that the authors included unverified or sketchy information the work becomes useless. Thus I would not read a book like this unless I knew a little about and researched a bit into its writers’ reliability.

Based my knowledge gleamed from television programs, articles, as well as some online research, I do think that these writers have played it mostly straight and honest.  For both this work as well as the first Game Change, Halperin and Heilemann conducted hundreds of first hand interviews. They also amassed numerous first had sources such as emails, memos, recording, etc. The authors’ research seems to have been thorough and scrupulously involved a lot of double - checking. In addition, as someone who follows American politics and its controversies closely, it amazes me how little denials or rebuttals have been made by the subjects of these two books, even from those whom the authors’ have been relatively hard upon (I must point out that there are a few exceptions to this. However I think a work filled with this much information about such controversial topics must inevitably draw some fire. Sarah Palin was extremely critical of her portrayal in the movie version of the first Game Change Book, though a little less so regarding the book. The entire movie thing really muddles the issue as I think that the film did display bias that the book did not. The film also only covered a small portion of the book, specifically the part about Palin. As for that book, I thought that it actually painted a mostly sympathetic portrait of Palin.) Furthermore, these authors show no discernable bias for or against particular parties or ideologies.

This book exhibits an interesting mix of cynicism and idealism. It is cynical in that it unsentimentally portrays a political world of bare knuckles brawling where all the stops are pulled out and little quarter is given. Almost all the participants are at times portrayed as doing questionable things. Furthermore, the influence of billionaires on American politics is shown to be pervasive and ubiquitous. All sides and candidates are shown to be unabashedly and openly dependent upon one faction or another of the super rich. The only good news in this respect is that the billionaires are not monolithic. There seems to be a group of billionaires that advocates for just about every position, including a few that want to reduce the influence of billionaires!

Deep down however, it seems that Halperin and Heilemann are oddly idealistic. Just as the authors show politicians as flawed people, no one is demonized. Instead, the players are depicted to be people who believe. Almost without exception, all the participants, despite their warts, are humanized. Personalities of all those concerned are delved into in complex ways.  Indeed, we are often confronted with overinflated egos, but this self - aggrandizement is based on a belief on the part of the egotistical, that they have amazing abilities to ultimately do good. 

Other times we see that these politicians will compromise smaller ideals for the good of the bigger picture and are thus accused of doing anything to get elected. There is truth to this, but a certain amount of compromise is also shown to be necessary. However, in the end, the name of the game is getting ideas implemented. Of course, this can be seen as a hunger for power, which, I think, is just another way of looking at it. The bottom line is that while plenty bad points of all the participants are revealed, so is a surprising nobility and virtue that manifests itself in both sides.

I must point out that I find Halperin and Heilemann’s writing technique to often be poor. The book often alternates between various campaigns and at times the voice of the book takes on the attitude and tone of the point of view of the particular campaign it is focusing on. Thus, for instance, when writing about the Obama campaign the prose will sound biased and dismissive of Obama’s opponents. Conversely, when the focus shifts towards the Romney campaign, the opposite tone is assumed and the prose becomes biased and dismissive of Obama. Though the authors are scrupulously fair about this, I find this awkward and inappropriate. 

At other times the tone of the book is over the top snarky and filled with colloquialisms and slang that make the work seem sophomoric. This is a pity since this dilutes what in many ways is a fine chronicle of historical events.

For instance, at one point when explaining how many of his supporters felt Romney was falling behind, the authors write,

“For many members of the Republicans smarty pants set, one thing was clear: Romney needed a game changer”

Similarly, when describing how at one point Obama’s team were considering what they believed to their own bleak prospects,

“The economy was still dreadful. And more then two thirds of voters thought the country was on the wrong track – which if history was a guide, meant that he was hosed.”

Though it is clear that the writers were trying to liven up the narrative and make the book fun, the above just does not work for me in a work such as this.

Despite its flaws, I must admit that I could not put this book down. I am so easily enticed by a work filled with all sorts of insider information relating to American politics and the personalities that drive it. If one is expecting either side to be excoriated or glorified one will need to look elsewhere. Readers who absolutely despise pure political strategy will find this book frustrating but informative. For those very interested in American politics, and who are looking for hard, but at times refreshing truths, this is a very informative and entertaining read.


Harvee said...

This is a book my husband would enjoy if he hadn't sworn off books for a while. Sounds excellent. Good choice.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - If you husband is a political junkie and is Ok with a balanced approach this book make get him back into books.

Suko said...

Another terrific review! This is not a book I'd ordinarily pick up, about "the warfare" of politics, but you do make it sound worthwhile.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks for the good word. Even for me this was a bit unusual. I figure that I will read a book like this every four years or so.

joyce said...

Great review..You and Gary agree..a good read for any political junkie...or someone like me who loves inside info!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Joyce - One can really learn a lot how American politics and government works from books like this. It has no silly no conspiracy theories but it was also not overly idealistic.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Still giggling over the thought of this being your 50 Shades Of Grey.

Great review as always. This is the kind of book I'm sure my husband would find interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If your husband is a politan junkoe and interested in American politics, then I think he would indeed like this.

Sharon Wilfong said...

That was an excellent review. I personally enjoy reading this type of non fiction. I would like to read about the political strategies of people trying to get themselves as part of the governing body.

I'm glad to know that they're even. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum I'm on, I don't like reading disrespectful or slanted views of one side or the other.

Thanks, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks for the good word.

Disrespect is really a big issue these days. There is way too much nastiness in American politics.

The Bookworm said...

Great post Brian. This is not a book I'd read myself, but I do agree with your point on trying to make sure the info in here is not "unverified or sketchy". That would surely make books like this useless reads.

And now I know what you consider to be your Fifty Shades of Grey type book! lol

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - One really needs to be into politics, as opposed to issues, to get into a book such as this.

Perhaps similar things can be said about Fifty Shades of Gray!

JaneGS said...

I love the subject matter, but what you said about the writing style would make this a non-starter for me.

I liked your saying this was your "Fifty Shades of Gray" - funny!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - The writing style can be off putting but some would find it entertaining. I really felt that it was important to mention it for prospective readers.

seraillon said...


Kudos to you for being able to wade through a book by Mark Halperin. I couldn't even get through his fiction, so I know I'd never be able to make it through his political commentary. But then again, while I'm something of an addict for political news, I don't think I'd do well with any book about a U.S. presidential campaign that took itself more seriously than Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Serailion - I think that you may be mixing up the author with Mark Helprin, who is a fiction writer who I believe writes a little about politics too. I do not believe that Mark Halperin has written fiction (Considering the fact that they both write about politics the names are so confusing!).

I really think that I need to read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. I wonder if you might actually appreciate the mocking style that this book often conveys.

James said...

I fondly remember reading Theodore White's wonderful campaign surveys decades ago. Based on your catalog of the faults of this book I do not think I will attempt a return to the world of the political campaign narrative.

seraillon said...

Brian - How terribly embarrassing. I'd merely assumed - given [fiction writer] Mark Helprin's foray into politics and his prominence as a political commentator - that he and this author were one and the same. Obviously, they are not. So, my apologies to you, and to Mark Halperin, and, well, to Mark Helprin as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Serallion - No need to be embarrassed or apologize. My wife made the same error and thought that the two were the same for a time! They really need to do something about those names!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed there are more scholarly and serious chronicles of even this campaign. While I think that they were journalistically fair and historically accurate these authors chose to go for a sensualistic writing style aimed at entertainment.

Lindsay said...

I wish I had more time or I need to devote more reading time, to books like this, because it sounds fascinating to take a look at politics in this way. Lovely, balanced review Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - Thanks for the good word. As i mentioned, even the good books on politics seem to not be important enough to the big picture in order for me to read. If these two authors continue their pattern, maybe I will read another book by them in four years.