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.

They don’t act this way in public, however, as you’ve probably noticed; it would certainly liven up those sleepy television debates if they did. But that space between the public and the private provides the theme of Game Change, its moral, you might say: Underneath the smooth public surface of a presidential campaign is the steaming landscape of Hell itself, where pollsters scheme, consultants double-cross advisers, advisers undermine consultants, and all of them tattle on their candidates once the cause is lost—and now, say the authors of Game Change, the naked truth can be told at last. It’s a claim that bookwriting reporters have made for generations now, dating back to Theodore White and his Making of the President series. Of course, the landscape White revealed to us looked less like Hell. Whether this is because White was more discreet or the politicians were less hellish, we don’t know.

For that matter, we don’t know whether Game Change really is offering the real story, as the authors claim. We have to take a lot on faith, if only because the authors are taking a lot on faith. They don’t want to admit this, of course, and they go to great lengths to affirm the definitiveness of their many, many anecdotes. 

Consider, as a tiny example, that quotation from McCain above. How do they know he dropped ten f-bombs and not nine? Maybe it only seemed like ten to the snitch who was in the room at the time—and who later counted them out for the authors. But no: It’s got to be ten, according to an authors’ note describing their methods. “Where dialogue is not in quotes, it is paraphrased, reflecting only a lack of certainty on the part of our sources about precise wording,” they write. 

But McCain’s words—actually the same word, over and over—appear in quotes. “Where dialogue is within quotation marks,” they go on, “it comes from the speaker, someone who was present and heard the remark, contemporaneous notes, or transcripts.” We can safely assume in this instance that the precise wording didn’t come from the speaker—unless he’s out of his f—in’ mind—or from notes or transcripts. So it must have come from “someone who was present and heard the remark.” Maybe she used one of those hand clickers. 

Similar problems arise when the authors root around in the heads of their subjects and jot down the thoughts they find there. At one vulnerable moment in the campaign, they write, “The matter of Bill’s approval and his example loomed large in Hillary’s mind.” It’s unlikely—impossible, really—that Hillary Clinton told either of the authors that she craved the approval of her husband. It’s impossible, in fact, to imagine Hillary Clinton, a proud woman and infinitely wronged wife, disclosing her desire for her husband’s approval to anyone. We can be sure, though, that somebody told the authors this and that the authors believed it. 

Who are these people, these sources? They’re the kind of people who could take paychecks from Hillary Clinton and then tell reporters their version of her most intimate yearnings. They’re the kind of people who could work for Elizabeth Edwards and her husband—one strike against them right there—and then recount for public consumption the following anecdote about a domestic squabble. 

Elizabeth was sobbing, out of control, incoherent. As their aides tried to look away she tore off her blouse, exposing herself. “Look at me!” she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground.

Who are these people, these sources? Why, they’re highly paid, well-regarded political professionals, who have risen to the top of their trade. 

Whether all the stories in Game Change are true or not, we do know that the authors’ sources want us to think the stories are true. That’s the most revealing datum of all. Game Change is much less interesting for what it says than for what it is—a town dump where awful people can unload unflattering and embarrassing stories about their employers, colleagues, friends, and subordinates, knowing that the stories will never be traced back to them and knowing too that the stories will be published willingly by mainchance reporters and read avidly by a public that loves to have it bucketed all over them. Game Change is an exquisite construction built from betrayal and deceit. It is a precise rendering of the political culture of Washington. 

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.


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