Tuesday, October 23, 2012

book review: Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

The backstory: With the 2012 U.S. presidential election heating up, I decided it was finally time to read a (recent) historical account of the 2008 election--because I often like a little distance from my politics to keep my emotions in check. As one of my favorite lines in this book says: so well "Obama smirked and reprised for Axelrod another of his favorite sayings: “This shit would be really interesting if we weren’t in the middle of it.”"

The basics: Game Change is a joint effort by John Heilemann, a political writer for New York magazine, and Mark Halperin, a political reporter for Time magazine. Both covered the 2008 election in depth at the time. In Game Change, they join forces, combine resources, and manage to interview hundreds of political operatives and campaign workers.

My thoughts: I devoured John Heilemann's coverage of the 2008 election. Typically when my New York arrives, I flip right to the Approval Matrix on the last page and then do the crossword. About once a month I get around to reading the magazine itself. During that election, however, I immediately read his coverage. 2008 was a special election for many reasons. On the grander scale, both the Republican and Democratic primaries were wide open. There was no incumbent and the current vice president opted not to run. More personally, Mr. Nomadreader and I moved to Des Moines (for the first time) in the summer of 2007. We worked at a brewpub downtown and waited on numerous politicians running for president. We went to see many of the candidates early on at open forums with only a hundred people. It was intimate campaigning in a way I'd never seen, and it was infectious. Despite my intentions to keep an open mind and not pick a candidate too soon, I did. We were even pictured in campaign literature for one of the candidates before the January 2008 primary.

All of this is to say: reading the first part of the book about the Iowa caucuses was fascinating. I was here; I lived it. Yet Heilemann and Halperin made it seem new. There's an art to writing about politics in the moment, and Heilemann proved he can do that during the election. It's a different art to write about politics in a historical context. I would argue it's perhaps most difficult to write about politics in a recent historical context. That Game Change reads like a smart pulp novel is a testament to both the writers and the wackiness of the 2008 presidential election. They grasped the eccentricities of Iowa politics beautifully: "Democrats in Iowa were decidedly liberal, with a peacenik streak." The Republicans tend to be social conservatives (as evidenced by the last two Iowa caucus winners: Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.) And then there are a lot of Iowans who are moderate swing voters. It's a fascinating political climate.

After the action moved on from the Iowa caucuses, the book lagged only slightly before picking up steam again. The entire primary race riveted me in 2008, but I had a new perspective on the timeline. While I recalled all of the events well, I didn't recall their order as precisely or understand the pending ramifications.

The general election was even more intriguing and mind-boggling. The Sarah Palin storyline actually was more shocking when reading it context. At the time, there seemed to be confusion, but with fours years distance, her ignorance is somehow even more shocking and terrifying:
"Palin couldn’t explain why North and South Korea were separate nations. She didn’t know what the Fed did. Asked who attacked America on 9/11, she suggested several times that it was Saddam Hussein. Asked to identify the enemy that her son would be fighting in Iraq, she drew a blank. (Palin’s horrified advisers provided her with scripted replies, which she memorized.) Later, on the plane, Palin said to her team, “I wish I’d paid more attention to this stuff.”"
While neither John Edwards nor Sarah Palin are painted in a particularly positive light, I think the portrayals of the political figures were just. Watching John Edwards break down slowly was even more fascinating because I knew the ending.I may have my preferences, but I grinned as much as I grimaced at the words and actions of the candidate for whom I voted.

Favorite passage: The single most shocking passage in the entire book: "In the midst of the financial crisis, she said to a friend, “God wants him to win.”" -Hillary Clinton on Barack Obama

The verdict: Game Change is a fascinating glimpse into American presidential politics. It's simultaneously inspiring, frustrating, and sleazy. I enjoyed the parts vivid in my memory as much as I did those I didn't know or had forgotten. In 2008, I couldn't help but think "that can't really true, can it?" In Game Change it's clear truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Recommended to political junkies and casual observers.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 464 pages
Publication date: January 11, 2010
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Game Change from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. Ok, at first, I said, no way, but then as I read and read your review, you hooked me. Your use of the quotes and the fascination that you had for this book made the review really electric! I must read this one, and I'm not really even a political person!

  2. I listened to this on audio this summer and found it riveting … and I'm not a political person at all. The Clinton-Obama campaign was fascinating … and the Palin stuff was just mind-blowing. It makes me wish I could get this book focused on the current election right now!!

    I need to write my review of this … it would be good to do it soon as an "election" themed post.

  3. Yeah, I might need this -- I'm political but emotional so I'm rarely, like, strategic and smart about politics and this sounds like it might be the right kind of book for me. (Maybe. If I can stop frothing.)

  4. I've been wanting to read this for a while... and maybe a while after this current election is over I'll go back and read this. I really want to watch the movie too. Looking back, it's crazy to remember that in the same election we had Sarah Palin AND John Edwards, LOL. Both such scandalous people.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!