If you want to know what really went on behind the scenes in the historic 2008 election campaign, read this book. But don’t expect an uplifting tale that restores your confidence in American democracy: practically none of the candidates or their spouses comes off well in this no-holds-barred saga of the political clusterf*** of 2008.
Well, practically none. Barack and Michelle Obama emerge fairly unscathed. But everyone else who is treated at any depth in Game Change comes out wounded, most of them grievously so. Not just McCain and Palin, either (although the authors’ portraits of them are especially colorful). Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Elizabeth Edwards (yes, even Saint Elizabeth) shriek and cuss and fume and generally make total fools of themselves. Others treated more cursorily — particularly Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney — come off poorly, too, but the authors’ fire is largely reserved for the eventual front-runners.
Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (2010) 476 pages ★★★★☆
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin obviously spent a great deal of time with sources inside each of the leading campaigns. conducting hundreds of interviews — and their accounts are fully consistent with the tales campaign insiders were telling out of school at the time.
So, what are we to conclude from this discouraging story? Several thoughts come to mind:
(1) The complexity of the American presidential election system — a two-year slog through donor meetings, primaries, caucuses, and media interviews — is one hell of a terrible way to choose the most powerful person in the world. And the complications and confusion of the primary season are compounded by the irrationality of the Electoral College.
(2) Presidential politics is no place for a normal, sane human being. Any reasonably well-balanced person who spends more than a short time on the presidential campaign trail — and, I can say from experience, not just the candidates but senior staff members as well — is highly likely to wrap up the experience as a candidate for a straight jacket.
(3) In fact, high-level political campaigns — including gubernatorial, Congressional, and Senatorial races — have a pronounced tendency to attract candidates with severe personality defects. Anyone who’s spent much time around the people who contend to run the country knows full well that there’s often something badly wrong with our most senior politicians. Not the corruption that they’re so loosely accused of committing, but simple character flaws that are magnified in the spotlight of center stage.
(4) As Winston Churchill reminded us, democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
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