Dragged Through Muck

Hard to Stop Reading These Salacious Stories

Posted January 15, 2010 at 3:35pm

By now everyone has heard about “Game Change.— It is impossible to avoid. The book has spawned the past few political scandals du jour — including stories of a cadre of powerful Democrats conspiring against Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) “Negro— faux pas and the disclosure of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) lax vetting of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). The book has been both parodied on “The Daily Show— and discussed in detail on every cable news network and warranted its own on-screen graphic. It is, quite simply, a must-read.

And yet, one is left with an instinctive desire to recoil from the salacious product of John Heilemann’s and Mark Halperin’s deep-background discussions with campaign staffers and candidates. Why is that? The former, a correspondent for New York magazine, and the latter, an editor at Time, have published the single most revelatory and irresistible account of the human drama of the past presidential campaign. But it is light on policy and heavy on personality. A political guilty pleasure. Complete schadenfreude.

The book reads like a carnival fun house ride through secret backroom campaign meetings and closed-door discussions in Hillarytown, McCainworld and Obamaville. Every candidate and adviser play a part to utterly shock and terrify the unsuspecting audience. On your left, you’ll shriek as “ego monster— John Edwards unabashedly dooms his political career for romps with Rielle Hunter. Clinton is there, plotting with hubris for her presidential transition a full year before the election. If you turn to your right, you can marvel at an inept Sarah Palin in a “catatonic stupor,— trying to study for a debate with the man she can’t stop instinctively referring to as “Obiden.— You’ll flinch as McCain, so enraged by the course of his presidential campaign, rants and curses until his poor wife cries.

And political spouses are hardly off-limits. They’re dragged through the muck perhaps more so than the candidates themselves — and sometimes to an astonishing degree. Ex-President Bill Clinton is portrayed as a walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins, vacillating between lust and pride, wrath and envy. It’s revealed that he had an affair, privately accused Barack Obama of stealing the Iowa caucus and at times usurped his wife’s campaign.

Elizabeth Edwards comes out looking terrible, too. The woman canonized for her strength and courage in the throes of cancer is revealed to be “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.— Confronted with the news of her husband’s affair, she rips open her blouse, exposing herself, and yells, “Look at me!—

Obama is the only person who emerges largely unscathed. He is, as his public image suggests, cool under pressure, even-handed and perhaps a bit overconfident (he compares himself to basketball star LeBron James). The most embarrassing Obama gossip is that he broke down crying at the thought of the toll a campaign could have on his family. It’s really more endearing than anything. Is this the real Obama or are his still-employed aides just less willing to dish? After all, to the victor go the spoils.

The book certainly uncovers what was previously simple speculation. But it leaves readers with almost as many questions as answers. Could all these revelations be true? If so, why would anyone want to tell it to a journalist? And speaking of, did every other Beltway insider know this stuff but refuse to print it? If that’s the case, is it OK to want to know every lurid detail of the candidates’ personal lives?

The book has already instigated some fascinating discussions about journalistic sourcing and the thin line between investigative and tabloid reporting. But in the end, the book’s title may be more self-aware than intended. Its lasting impact could be a “game change— for any future campaign retrospectives. From here on out, the public might come to expect nothing less than an all-warts-exposed detail of every race. In an already sensationalistic 24-hour-news-cycle world, this is an idea both predictable and challenging.