The Magazine

How the Game Is Played

Political insiders reveal their reptilian character in a new bestseller.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Before Scott Brown rudely burst in with those big burly biceps of his, the attention of Washington’s political professionals had been fixed for ten days on Game Change, the new book about the 2008 presidential campaign. Think of it: ten days. In excitable, ADHD Washington, where the Internet provides a new crisis of the century every couple of hours, ten days is a geologic epoch. Why were we so entranced? Grab your copy right now and open it to page 279: 

“F— you! F—, F—, f—, f—, f—, f—, f—, f—, f—, f—!!!”

McCain let out the stream of sharp epithets, both middle fingers raised and extended, barking in his wife’s face. He was angry.

I guess he was! And John McCain will probably have much more to say, along similar lines, when he reads the book. But this brief passage—it’s too wispy to earn the word anecdote—does offer in concentrated form the book’s strengths and peculiarities and shows why we were all fascinated by it. We gaze into it and see ourselves, in the town we love, doing the work we prize.

As a book, of course, Game Change isn’t any good. The haste with which it was thrown together shows itself on every page. The narrative zigs and zags, subplots are left to dangle, anecdotes lead nowhere. The passage above, minus the dashes, opens a section of chapter 15 and then just sits there, completely unexplained. When did this happen? Where were McCain and his wife? Why was he so angry, what did she do in response, who else was there—all the old-fashioned reporter-type questions are unasked and unanswered; the authors merely drop the lines into the text for our enjoyment and then move on to a brief summary of the state of John McCain’s marriage (assuming he still has one).

The writing itself is so careless that readers will sometimes wonder whether their legs are being pulled. Most writers would consider the descriptive phrase “sharp epithets” unnecessary after detonating ten—I counted—f-bombs, one right after the other, in perfect sequence. And I’m sure the authors could have done without that extra pair of exclamation points. Elsewhere they dredge up jargon unheard since the third grade. “The Times,” the book tells us, “made Bill [Clinton] especially mental.” They must mean spazzed out.

The authors are highly regarded political reporters—highly regarded, that is, by other political reporters whom the authors likewise hold in high regard (that’s how admiration works here)—and they work for two general-interest magazines, Time and New York, where pleasing prose has recently sunk rather low on the editors’ must-have list. So if they load up a single sentence with multiple, ill-fitted clichés, they must think, what the hell: “What cranked up the thermostat on Clinton’s umbrage were signs he saw that the Obama campaign was stirring the pot with liberal media outlets.” And every once in a while they try out a few new clichés of their own—run ’em up the old flagpole, as it were, to see if they can bring home the bacon over the finish line. When it rains they get fancy. “Rain bucketed down from the skies all over them.” Yuck.

At the end of its ten-day epoch—the Era of Game Change, historians will call it—the book had been picked clean of its most titillating anecdotes, so there’s no point in detailing them here. By now we all know that Harry Reid felt relieved and unthreatened by Barack Obama’s light skin and soothingly non-Negro dialect and that two McCain staffers thought Sarah Palin was a hopeless idiot, with good cause. We’ve learned that Hillary Clinton believes Obama’s mother was probably a Communist, and that David Geffen, the show biz mogul, thinks Bill Clinton’s trademark goatish behavior has only intensified in recent years, thanks to the influence of Hollywood goatherd Ron Burkle. John Edwards is a reptile, in case you were wondering, and his wife isn’t nearly as nice as she seems when she goes on The View. And all of them, every single one of them, use the f-word as if they believed it had the power to transform and to heal. Even Valerie Jarrett.

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