As I write this, it’s one year on from Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. But we still can’t get enough of dissecting his long road to the White House, as evidenced by the books Battle For America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election (Haynes Johnson, Dan Balz) and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (John Heilemann, Mark Halperin).
Yes, Battle … came out last year, but it actually makes a nice pairing with Game Change, which covers the same period. Johnson and Balz, both Washington Post vets, relate their version of the story with an eye for detail and sober reflection, tossing in a few livelier anecdotes for spice (e.g. Hillary Clinton knocking back shots with John McCain and Lindsay Graham while touring the Baltics). There’s much analysis of strategy, revealing that, for all their years of experience, Clinton and McCain ran astonishingly poor campaigns. As the analytical approach signifies, This Is A Serious Book.
Conversely, Game Change focuses on personality. It’s the gossip tome; The Economist recently dubbed it “high quality political porn,” though admitting it was “horribly compulsive.” Heilemann and Helperin have unearthed a wealth of juicy tidbits, albeit from “deep background” interviews, meaning they’re largely anonymous (Battle … is scrupulously footnoted).
You could even subtitle the book “Candidates Gone Wild.” There’s the luckless John Edwards, driven by the wife who berates him into the arms of a star-struck videographer who introduces herself to people by saying, “I’m a witch” and gushing to Edwards that he can be right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. There’s Hillary Clinton spitting out “Unfuckingbelievable!” when her quotes are yet again taken out of context by the fiendish press. There’s Barack Obama … well, he gets a bit of a free pass because he’s The One, isn’t he? (Battle … handles Obama in a similar fashion.) Oooh, and does John McCain ever gnash his teeth over that double standard! He gets so discomfited he selects Sarah Palin as his running mate, and we know how well that worked out. Though Game Change actually conjures up some sympathy for Sarah, thrown into the spotlight with no time to get her sea legs, and then increasingly marginalized by the campaign as she becomes a liability. Nonetheless, it was still unnerving to read that Palin thought her selection as Veep-to-be was part of “God’s plan.” Given the outcome, one wonders if in fact God chose her to give her a lesson in humility.
One of the ironies of the story is being reminded how Democratic leaders were afraid Clinton was too polarizing a figure and thus pushed for Obama to run. Yet partisan gridlock nonetheless remains firmly entrenched in DC, preventing anything meaningful from being accomplished. Which brings us to the moment when those fissures really started becoming apparent, during the (Bill) Clinton years. Ken Gormley’s massive The Death Of American Virtue: Clinton Vs. Starr (the main text is nearly 700 pages) traces the persecution of the president from the Whitewater debacle (more the fault of would-be developer Jim McDougal than either Clinton) to a blow-by-blow account of the impeachment proceedings.
What’s striking about the attacks on Clinton is how they set up the now familiar template of attacking candidates simply because you don’t like them; hence they must be bad people. It’s a template based solely on inspiring knee-jerk reactions, appealing to a mob mentality. Whatever happened to having rational discussions about why a particular candidate’s policies are bad, and most importantly, what your candidate has to offer that’s better? Instead we have screaming matches between pundits on the cable networks that have basically transformed all news magazine shows into “infotainment.”
After Republicans were unable to hobble Clinton via a money scandal in Whitewater (two independent counsels, including Ken Starr, couldn’t find anything to prosecute), Clinton handed them a goldmine in the form of a sex scandal (and quite why Clinton chose to imperil himself when he was already being persecuted would be a book in itself). Yet even this didn’t bring the man down and the sore feelings have festered ever since.
The triumph of Gormley’s book is that he managed to talk to many of the main players: Clinton, Starr, Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Paula Jones, Susan McDougal (Jim’s wife; he died in 1998). This means you’re presented with the viewpoints of each side. Indeed, Gormley plays it straight down the middle so well, whether you’re a Clinton or a Starr supporter you’ll feel your own view is the one that’s most justified. In other words, this scathing, heartbreaking, always thoroughly absorbing book is unlikely to change anyone’s already firmly held preconceptions.
And there’s another subtext to all three books, one which, it could be argued, does a great disservice to our country. Because they each pose the question: after seeing what they’d be put through, why would any intelligent, sane person ever want to run for public office?