Sunday, March 4, 2012

Game Change

A few weekends ago, I was in the middle of recovering from a bad virus. I'd been stuck at home, feeling miserable, for several days. I'd watched hours and hours of Gossip Girl on Netflix, and my brain was feeling sluggish and spongey. I couldn't take another minute in front of the idiot box. That was my frame of mind when I wandered over to my bookshelf and picked up a copy of this book, which my grandfather had given me a few weeks before:

As I started to read, I found my brain re-animating itself. I quickly became absorbed in the fascinating story of the 2008 presidential election. The book was written by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, two journalists who had worked closely with all the major candidates' camps and interviewed hundreds of people working on the inside. In short, they knew all the dirt there was to know about the Obama, Clinton, Edwards and McCain campaigns. 

What I loved most about this book was how easy a read it was. I'm interested in politics, but extensive reading on the subject generally depresses me. I'm not even sure I've ever read a full book on the subject before- biographies of political figures, yes, but the world of politics and campaigning, no. However, this book reads like a novel; the authors are simply telling stories. Stories such as:

1. Michelle Obama's extreme reluctance to have her husband enter the race
2. The difficult, often verbally abusive relationship that Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, maintained with the rest of her staff
3. The "silent support" given to Barack Obama early in the race for the Democratic nomination by many extremely powerful members of the party. They wanted Obama to win, but would not come out in public support of his nomination for fear of angering the Clintons, so they settled for giving Obama back-door advice and encouragement. 
4. How reluctant Clinton was to "get her hands dirty" by personally making phone calls to potential large-scale donors and endorsors; when weighed against Obama's ease on the phone with those same potential investors, it cost her millions of dollars in donations and some key endorsements
5. The struggles within the Clinton camp about whether to "play the race card" against Obama, and how to keep Bill Clinton from putting his foot in his mouth again, and again...
6. The unprecedented grassroots campaign run by the Obama camp, which collected millions of small-scale donations from online sources and allowed Obama to decline public campaign funds
7. The true character of Elizabeth Edwards, a completely opposite picture from the way she was painted in the press
8. John McCain's unwillingness to prepare for debates, figure out a clear message, or even go out and campaign in some places
9. The appalling lack of vetting before the announcement of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate, due to her selection only five days before the announcement. McCain had only met her once, and many people in the party and the campaign had never heard of her. 
10. How unglued Palin became when prepping for interviews and debates; the huge stacks of index cards she and her staffers made to help her study; the way she would sit on the floor and refuse to communicate when she was over-stressed
11. The impact of Tina Fey's Palin parody on Palin's image
12. How concerned Palin was about her popularity- not in the whole United States, just in Alaska
13. How the collapse of the economy favored Obama's resurgence, and how even President Bush was astonished at McCain's lack of thought and planning for the economic talks held during his "suspension of campaign" in October. McCain made a huge show of canceling his campaign appearances, most notably on the Letterman show, but made no contribution whatsoever to the meetings in Washington, letting Obama take center stage without a fight.
14. The occasional tension between Obama and his vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden
15. How Obama offered Hillary Clinton the secretary of state job without approval from his advisors, and how she firmly turned him down before caving into the pressure to accept

These are just a few of the sensational stories that the book includes, and they don't even brush the surface of the day-to-day facts about each campaign, which may be less salacious, but no less interesting. The book is organized into three parts. Part I is the race for the Democratic nomination between Obama, Clinton and marginally, Edwards; Part II is McCain's battle for the Republican nomination; and Part III is the story of the conventions to the presidential election and beyond. 

The 2008 election was riveting and exciting throughout, and I know I spent a lot more time watching the news and reading the political blogs that year. But this book showed me that I didn't know a tenth of what really went on behind the scenes. It's a fascinating story, and I encourage anyone who is remotely interested in politics- or even just human nature- to give it a read. 

Next Sunday, March 10th, a movie based on the book will be premiering at 9:00 on HBO. It has already stirred up a lot of controversy among the politicians and press portrayed!
Additional details can be found here:

As we continue the race for 2012, take this opportunity to see how we got here four years ago!

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