Thursday, March 11, 2010

game change

normally game change is the type of book that i would never read. the gossipy after-the-fact account of a presidential campaign by media insiders does not have any appeal to me. in fact, it epitomizes what i hate about the way politics is presented in the u.s.

but standards change when i'm sitting for months in kazakhstan with a limited universe of english-language reading material. "game change" was sent to my neighbor in a care package. she ripped right through it and then loaned it to us when she was done.

the book completely met my expectations. that is, it was petty, only discussed the campaigns on a purely strategic level and focused obsessively on all of the things in modern political reporting that i don't think matter. you could easily read this book and have almost no idea about the candidates' proposals or positions about all of the major issues of the campaign. policy is almost completely absent from the book. it mentioned that hillary clinton thought that obama's health plan was just watered-down rip-off of hers (and it was) and that she sought to emphasize the differences between their plans, but the author's didn't bother to tell us how the plans were similar or what those differences were. obama's statement that he would talk to any world leader without preconditions is treated just as a gaffe (as conventional wisdom deemed it to be at the time) with no discussion at all about whether talking without preconditions would be a good or bad idea.

there's also the lingering question of how accurate the book is. in the forward the authors brag about their methodology. how they only use quotes if they get the line from someone who actually heard the statement first-hand, never mind that they only told the authors months later when subsequent events and the dominant media narratives would affect their memories of what happened.

in fact, there is very little in the book that challenges any of the prevailing media narratives from the presidential campaign. does that mean that the narratives were all 100% accurate? or is it because the author's themselves are part of the media that created and perpetuated that narrative? or is it because the political consultants and campaign people who were the sources for the book's account must follow those narratives closely to do their job and inevitably internalize whatever those narratives say?

the only real departure from those dominant narratives is their treatment of elizabeth edwards. but it's also pretty clear from the outset that the authors really don't like the edwards. i always find it odd when presidential candidates are criticized for being full of themselves. of course they are! they're running for president! but the same qualities that are portrayed as narcissism in john edwards are spun as ambition when it comes to hillary clinton and over-confidence when it comes to barack obama (and are completely unmentioned when it comes to john mccain, the implication being that it's completely natural for him to expect to become president some day). consistently everything about john edwards is spun in the least flattering way. maybe he deserves it. i don't know the guy. but that's the point. none of us do, including the authors. the really unflattering portrayal of edwards' wife seems to suffer from a spillover effect. the author's don't buy the john-is-a-weasel-but-elizabeth-is-a-courageous-cancer-survivor frame and so they highlight her pettiness and temper tantrums.

still, the book is a very easy read. there was a lot of "oh yeah, i remember that" when they recounted the multitude of faux-controversies that plagued that endless campaign season. like my neighbor, i ripped right through it. it kept my attention in the same way that it's hard to take your eyes off of a car wreck. sadly, i am not surprised that someone could write 436 pages about a presidential race that is so bereft of policy. that's pretty much how political reporting works these days. in that sense, the book is an artifact of the current state of the american political media. the title itself is most revealing. this really is just a game to the pundit class.