10 September 2012

Review 51: Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

"In 2008, the presidential election became blockbuster entertainment. Everyone was watching as the race for the White House unfolded like something from the realm of fiction. The meteoric rise and historic triumph of Barack Obama. The shocking fall of the House of Clinton - and the improbably resurrection of Hillary as Obama's partner and America's face to the world. The mercurial performance of John McCain and the mesmerizing emergence of Sarah Palin. But despite the wall-to-wall media coverage of this spellbinding drama, remarkably little of the real story behind the headlines has yet been told. In Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, two of the country's leading political reports, use their unrivaled access to pull back the curtain on the Obama, Clinton, McCain and Palin campaigns. Based on hundreds of interviews with the people who lived the story, Game Change is a reportorial tour de force that reads like a fast-paced novel. Character driven and dialogue rich, replete with extravagantly detailed scenes, this is the occasionally shocking, often hilarious, ultimately definitive account of the campaign of a lifetime." 

This took me months to get through but I found it fascinating. As someone who follows US politics, but not in a huge amount of detail, it gave me a huge insight into not only the 2008 presidential election but also how the whole US political system works. Despite being pretty dense, it's very readable and accessible to people with only a smattering of political knowledge. Heilemann and Halperin are clearly big fans of Obama as he is portayed extremely positively, but it felt as though the key figures were all represented relatively fairly, from my somewhat ignorant perspective. All in all, an interesting and enjoyable read that taught me a lot.

First Line: "Barack Obama jerked bolt upright in bed at three o'clock in the morning."

Why I read it: I was vaguely aware of the book and then came across it in a hostel I was staying at in Reykjavik where I read it.

Who I would recommend it to: Anyone with an interest in politics - it's a great introduction for people who don't know a great deal about the US system and an interesting new way of writing political history for those who already know the facts.

There must be very few people who know nothing about the 2008 US presidential election and Obama's historic victory. In 2008 I followed US politics far less than I do now so although I knew the basics of what was happening, the vast majority of Game Change was new to me. I did have to keep stopping and looking up technicalities of the US political system, there are some kind of bizarre rules and rituals! Although having said that, I imagine much of this is new to many readers as it aims to be a sort of behind the scenes look at the election with conversations presented as apparently verbatim dialogue and a descriptive story-like feel to it. It makes it incredibly readable and also feel like a work of fiction at times. The race itself lends itself to this style though, being so full of big characters, twists of fate and historic and unprecedented changes.

The first half of Game Change deals with the Democratic nominee race, which was really between Obama and Hillary Clinton from a relatively early stage. Clinton was the presumed winner from the outset and Obama was the shock candidate, with relatively little experience. His enormous appeal and huge popular movement were unexpected and in sharp contrast to the Clinton campaign. Heilemann and Halperin do come across as rather enamoured of Obama, and it's difficult to read much of this without joining them. They claim to be politically unbiased but Obama is clearly the hero of the book, with Clinton being portrayed as a rather stressed yet cold woman. I felt inadequately placed to know how much liberty they were taking with they way their portrayed the key figures.

Once Obama has secured the nomination, the book goes on to cover the Republican nominee race, before a look at the Sarah Palin phenomenon and then the run up to the big battle and how Obama actually became president, with a postscript of sorts about how he convinced Clinton to become his Secretary of State. The section about Palin is unsurprisingly fascinating, the last minute entry on to the Republican ticket and how little the party knew about her history and credentials. Game Change paints a rather frightening portrait of Palin as inadvertently deceptive, somewhat unintelligent, obsessive and also implies she might be mentally ill. It's fairly damning, but in the way one might criticise a wayward child, not a potential vice president of the US.

The book is based on hundreds of interviews as well as things that are in the public domain already but the extraordinary amount of seemingly private conversations that are recording is quite astonishing. And it's never really clear whether the conversations recorded are supposed to be taken as the exact words that were spoken. I would have liked a little more information on how the book was researched and compiled so I knew exactly what I was reading. I can't imagine everyone discussed in this book was happy about the amount of information divulged. It's really only Barack and Michelle Obama who come out unscathed and ultimately it's difficult to know whether this is because the authors are biased or because Obama's overwhelming appeal, charisma and commitment is undeniable and his victory is testament to that.

Also, let's hope that Obama manages it again this year because Romney and Ryan are a ticket more frightening than McCain and Palin.

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