DAVE DAVIES, host:
The 2008 presidential election was the longest and most expensive in U.S. history. The campaigns, the subject of a new book, Game Change, by two political reporters; John Heilemann, from New York magazine and Time magazines and Mark Halperin. The books revelations have made headlines.
But our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the authors mostly add to the body of political writing that feeds public cynicism about American elections.
JOHN POWERS: Back when Theodore White did his groundbreaking book, The Making of the President 1960, it was easy to write about elections. Most Americans didnt know very much about how campaigns actually worked. These days, were all experts on push-polling, NASCAR dads, and those oddball Iowa caucuses. For an election book to register now, it must offer something new, something hot. It has to dish. If any account of the 2008 campaign does just that its Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, a laughably written yet highly readable book that The Economist has described as high quality political porn.
Because most of its pages rehearse yet again the campaigns greatest hits you know, Bill Clintons gaffes, Obamas trouble with Reverend Wright, Palins disastrous interview with Katie Couric its real selling point is its juicy stuff. That Harry Reid talked about Obamas lack of Negro dialect. That McCains aides thought Palin unfit to be Veep. And that Elizabeth Edwards behaved hideously to her husbands campaign staff. Such TMZ-ish revelations have won the book lots of headlines. But Game Change also raises questions about a certain kind of political reporting.
The first is about sourcing. To get their scoops, the authors have relied on so-called deep-background interviews with anonymous sources. Theyve taken a lot of heat for this approach, which seemingly allows disgruntled losers to say just about anything under a cloak of secrecy. Now, this doesnt mean that what Heilemann and Halperin describe didnt happen. Theyre solid reporters. And when they say something took place, I believe them. Indeed, both Reid and Edwards essentially acknowledge that they did what the book says they did. The trouble with blind sources has less to do with facts than with what those facts mean.
Early on, were told that Hillary Clinton freaked out so much on losing Iowa, that one of her most senior aides thought, this woman shouldnt be president a judgment so damning the authors naturally put it in italics. I dont doubt that this happened, yet a lot depends on whose judgment were getting. Was this unnamed aide someone Clinton turned on? Did he or she quit the campaign because Hillary was unfit? Or was this simply the kind of angry thought we all have in the heat of the moment and then vanishes the next day? If we dont know the storys source, we cant assess whether its a serious judgment of Hillary or just a cheap shot.
To say this is to confront another problem the inability to see what really matters in a campaign. Favoring gossip over analysis, Heilemann and Halperin cant be bothered to discuss substantive things like Clintons vote for the Iraq War Resolution. It only matters to them as an electoral liability. Or the way that Obamas early big-money backers were rich Wall Street bundlers - a fact that just might have some bearing on how hes handled the financial crisis. Instead, Game Change traffics in anecdotes that usually make Obama look good he won, after all and make the losers look petty, sleazy, or worse.
We see McCain flipping off his wife Cindy while showering her with F-bombs. As for Elizabeth Edwards, the authors happily debunk her saintly image, telling us that her husbands team saw her as quote, an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazy woman. Now, I realize that journalism is not a gentlemanly business. But Im not sure theres any reason other than a desire for sales to tell us about a defeated candidates marital spats or to take such ungallant glee in trashing a woman with life-threatening cancer and an adulterous husband whose political career is now kaput.
Such an approach only feeds public cynicism, the belief that those running for office are all creeps and phonies. I dont want to sound like a sucker, but the truth is more complicated and more interesting. Politics is about character, of course, often bad character. But its also about values, ideas and, yes, even policies. What makes presidential candidates so endlessly fascinating, is that their whole life becomes a negotiation between their almost-pathological ambition and their idealistic dreams of how theyd like to remake the world.
Its a negotiation that includes us, the American people, who have ambitions and desires of our own. Never was this a grander story than in 2008, the greatest presidential campaign of our lives, and its depressing to see men as smart as Heilemann and Halperin fritter it all away. Finishing their book, I realized that they hadnt told me a single important thing I didnt already know. On the contrary, theyve taken an election that proved how big this country really is and made it seem as small as a reality show.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and writes the Absolute Powers blog for vogue.com.
You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
For Terry Gross, Im Dave Davies.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.