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Humor and Humanity on Display in 'Double Down' Politics

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan at the 2012 GOP convention.

Cruz. Paul. Clinton. Biden.

The list of potential 2016 presidential contenders is long, particularly on the Republican side. How might such candidates stack up as a cast of characters for a chronicle of the upcoming bid for the White House?

“There’s not a person talked about who isn’t interesting,” said Mark Halperin, the co-author with John Heilemann of “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” the best-selling account of the last presidential campaign and the sequel to the duo’s “Game Change,” about the 2008 race.

So will it be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seeking to dispel questions about his Canadian citizenship? Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul claiming the glory that eluded his father, former Rep. Ron Paul? Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a hail-fellow-well-met figure who embodies possibly bygone old-school politics? Or Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeking the victory denied her by Barack Obama in 2008, who saw her husband, President Bill Clinton, help seal the deal for Obama’s shaky re-election?

Regardless of who runs, Halperin told CQ Roll Call he sees rich material.

“There’s something intrinsically interesting about someone who puts themselves forward to run for president,” he said.

That, and a lot of humor.

Regarding Ron Paul, for instance, Halperin and Heilemann write in “Double Down” that “his radical libertarianism, out-front isolationism, and just plain kookiness — from his abhorrence of paper money to his ties to the John Birch Society — made him more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee.”

Biden gets a chapter, “The Uncle Joe Problem,” spelling out his unique insider/outsider status.

On the subject of Biden and former White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Halperin and Heilemann write, “They cackled about the fact that [Rahm Emanuel] referred to [Valerie Jarrett] and [Pete Rouse] as Uday and Qusay, after Saddam Hussein’s power-mad sons, and over the nickname others had bestowed on Jarrett: the Night Stalker, for the way she would visit the Obamas in the residence after hours and eviscerate her rivals. ... They were like the gray-haired hecklers in the balcony of ‘The Muppet Show,’ the Statler and Waldorf of the White House.”

And there’s more where that came from.

“There’s a lot of humor to be found in presidential campaigns, and this one had a fair amount of it,” Halperin said.

That can be traced directly to his and Heilemann’s biggest literary influence.

“In terms of political writing, and humor, Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ is pretty influential for both of us, because one of his great gifts as a political observer was to find humor but try to fuse it to seriousness of purpose,” Halperin said.

Such grounding goes to the genesis of “Game Change” between Halperin and Heilemann, as they were returning from a campaign event for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in Annapolis, Md., that Halperin said “had a lot of humor and bathos to it.”

You’re automatically in the literary track if you recognize “bathos,” that feeling when something big or important steers into the ridiculous or trivial. Although politics is filled with bathos, recognizing and chronicling it is the purview of few political journalists.

Thompson excelled at it. Halperin and Heilemann are following in his Chuck-Taylor-shaped footsteps.

“Our conception of it was to try to do a few things. One is to go back and answer the unanswered questions that people just can’t get answered in real time, even in monthly journalism. And second is to try to write about the story from a human point of view, focusing on the main characters and their motivations and challenges. And finally, to think about it in novelistic terms and cinematic terms. So: Find big scenes that are important and interesting and emotional and funny and historic, and try to report the heck out of them so you can reconstruct what occurred,” Halperin said of his partnership with Heilemann.

Much of the reporting for “Double Down” gave Halperin a perspective on early 2016 developments, including a possible third White House run for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the George Washington Bridge-related travails of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Could Halperin see Romney running again, even after the emotional drubbing the Republican took in 2012 when he was absolutely convinced he would win?

“I actually can. I think if Jeb Bush doesn’t run, there’s really no obvious heir apparent. ... If you just put down strength and weaknesses on paper, he’s well known and can raise a lot of money,” he said.

As for Christie’s bridge fiasco, Halperin said he was not surprised “in the least,” explaining that Christie “plays by his own rules” and “can be volatile and emotional and human in dealing with controversy.”

One thing “Double Down” makes clear is the enormity of the logistical challenge of running for president. If you can’t court the establishment, raise upward of $1 billion or deal with spending the entirety of your campaign in a hotel room, it’s practically a non-starter.

It probably helps to have a sense of humor, too.

Halperin discusses his book as part of the Roll Call Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday at Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. It’s free, but please register at cqrcbooks-halperin.eventbrite.com. Complimentary copies of the book will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

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