- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

GAME CHANGE: OBAMA AND THE CLINTONS, MCCAIN AND PALIN, AND THE RACE OF A LIFETIME

By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Harper, $27.99, 448 pages

Reviewed by Claude R. Marx

Though some of the proverbial bloom has come off the Obama rose, there still appears to be much interest, especially among political junkies, in reliving the exciting campaign that brought him to the White House.

At least 12 books have come out on the subject, about twice as many as were written on the far less interesting 2004 presidential election.

The latest entry in this genre, “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime,” dishes a lot of dirt but doesn’t tell us much that is important.

Is it fun to learn of the details of all the internecine warfare within the McCain camp? Do we relish finding out that then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s loquaciousness and political correctness caused Mr. Obama to dress him down and exclude him from nightly conference calls?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. But after reading chapter upon chapter filled with stories such as these, readers feel a bit like they’ve just eaten a large helping of cotton candy. It was fun while it lasted, but there is scant nutritional value.

John Heilemann, the national political correspondent of New York magazine, and Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst of Time magazine, do an effective job of recounting stories so readers feel they were in the room when many key events took place.

While the string of anecdotes is enjoyable, the authors don’t use them to explain what it all means. As a result, the book reads like the basis for a movie. One could easily envision Denzel Washington as Mr. Obama, Amy Adams or Julia Roberts as Sarah Palin, Meryl Streep as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gene Hackman as Sen. John McCain.

Screenwriters will have an embarrassment of riches with which to work.

The behind-the-scenes maneuverings of the McCain campaign could fill a book by themselves. The dysfunctional relationships among staffers both during his roller-coaster ride to the nomination and when dealing with the economic crisis and the Palin candidacy during the general election are well chronicled here. Also, the authors recount the efforts of Mr. McCain to persuade Sen. Joe Lieberman to be his running mate and describe a conversation in which George W. Bush aide Karl Rove urges Mr. Lieberman not to accept.

“He’s so stubborn that he may simply get this in his mind and carry it to you. And you may be the only person who can save McCain from himself,” Mr. Rove told Mr. Lieberman.

The drama was equally compelling on the Democratic side, especially with regard to Mrs. Clinton.

After hearing Mr. Obama dazzle a crowd at a Democratic National Committee meeting in February 2007, Mrs. Clinton conceded to an aide that she had doubts about her ability to win. “I don’t know if this is going to work out. I don’t know how to do this. I really don’t know how to deal with these people.”

This was especially disconcerting to her because, as the authors summarize, she originally had assumed that party activists would see Mr. Obama as “infinitely promising, but right now, naive, callow and insubstantial.”

The authors also use Mrs. Clinton’s woes as one of many opportunities to go into metaphorical overdrive.

They summarize a conversation in which she complains about the media’s double standard when covering her and Mr. Obama. The authors write that she believed the press would have “guillotined her on the spot and played soccer with her severed head” if she had made a dismissive comment about Mr. Obama’s likability (as Mr. Obama did about her in a January 2008 debate).

In another instance, they describe Obama campaign staffer Steve Hildebrand as having a “romantic streak about politics as wide and verdant as a Paris boulevard.”

The abundance of clever writing makes the book’s 400-plus pages easy to read. However, given the importance of the election, it is unfortunate that Mr. Heilemann and Mr. Halperin don’t use their skills to contextualize the drama.

As a result, the book lacks the heft and analytical sophistication of Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson’s “The Battle for America 2008.”

While reading “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime,” one is reminded of the question asked in that famous Wendy’s television advertisement (and the basis of a famous Walter Mondale put-down of Gary Hart: “Where’s the beef?”

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

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