Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Double Down

I have just finished reading Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012 (The Penguin Press/Associated, 2013), Halperin and Heilemann’s sequel to their account of the 2008 election. I read it on Kindle, not because I like reading that way – real books are by far my preference – but because, for a new book especially, it is so much cheaper that way. But it is well worth the full price!
The movie version of the original Game Change focused on the Republican candidate’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate and the consequences thereof. What single story-line will serve as the equivalent for the movie version of Double Down remains to be seen. Dramatically, the book opens with the President’s disastrous first debate. Obama’s difficulty with the debate format effectively frames the narrative of his lawyerly personalities discomfort with the demands of contemporary campaigns. His contempt for the stupidity of the debate format and the part debates play in our elections serves as a suitable symbol for the communication problem that has so bedeviled him as president. In that regard, the comparison with his much more personable predecessor, Bill Clinton, and the book’s extensive coverage of their personal relationship and Clinton’s critical contribution to the campaign are an essential part of the 2012 story.
On the Republican side, the story is that of the inevitable candidate’s not so inevitable path to the nomination through the minefield of Republican primaries, dominated by ridiculous debates with some really ridiculous candidates – how, contrary to tradition, Republican primary voters seemed hell bent on finding an alternative to Romney they could “fall in love” with. Once nominated, Romney’s story is the familiar one of the ambitious (sort of) plutocrat hopelessly out of touch with the electorate. The account highlights how what were commonly called “gaffes” (e.g., “47%”) were in the end (and were so interpreted by the other side) as insights into who Romney really was and what he was about.
The media seems already to have latched on to the tension between Romney and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as one of the leitmotifs of the Republican 2012 story. I wouldn’t be surprised if that become a major focus of the movie version!
And then there is the business of money – the de facto need in our strange system to be always at the top of the fundraising game and each side’s inevitable obsession with it, which, of course, means endless attentiveness to the very rich.  Money has always mattered, of course, but it has not always been so central to the process of picking our presidents. The fundraising part of the story really highlights how much our politics has changed for the worse.
Such comparisons come naturally especially in this week when we recall the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Money mattered then too, of course. Kennedy was the riches man ever elected president, and his family’s wealth mattered a lot – especially in the early primaries. That said, politics was so very different then. And there is no better way to appreciate that than to set Double Down alongside the granddaddy of all campaign books, Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960. Both are well written excellent journalist accounts of critical presidential campaigns a half-century apart. The very different stories they tell testify to the sadly very different society and politics we have today.

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