Ronald Goldfarb is back again, this time with a review of Double Down: Game Change 2012.
When Halperin and Heilemann wrote their best-selling Game Change, the story of the first Obama campaign for president, I wondered why anyone would want to read a book about that two year-long political saga. Hadn’t we all obsessed through the prolonged primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and then the presidential campaign against Senator John McCain? What more was there to say?
In fact, that book was fascinating and included back stories even we overdosed enthusiasts had missed. Then came the movie and the public loved the dramatization, even though we knew the conclusion, so perfect were the actors in the key roles.
No wonder there would be a second volume about the 2012 campaign by these insider authors. Media and audiences love sequels of successes, Rocky II and III set the practice in motion. So, is Double Down the wonder book that Game Change was? Halperin and Heilemann took their title from the doubled down funding of the campaigns of the Republican orthodoxies of the right, of President Obama’s successful use of new technology and ‘get out the votes’ machinery, and ultimately of the country’s doubling down on President Obama. The answer is no, not because the authors’ sources dried up or they lost their literary skill; but because 2008 was a watershed historically dramatic campaign whose drama was extraordinary, and 2012 was work, political work. A good read for political readers, for sure, but not the magic of 2008.
Like their first book, in Double Down, Halperin and Heilemann provide juicy back stories to the well-known campaign of 2012 (“the hyper-partisan freak show of American politics”) which are engaging. They describe how Obama’s “reasonableness in the face of reckless unreasonableness looked a lot like impotence” as well as “the ferocious insularity of Obamaworld.”
Their sources are vast and bi-partisan; they provide vignette-full x-rays of the campaigns, the Republican primaries as well as the run for the presidency. But in addition to the gossip, there are many catchy insights to the political life:
- Presidents can affirmatively affect 20% of the agenda – the rest is reaction.
- Romney aide Mike Leavitt’s thoughtful remark: in politics we are defined by things we never would have imagined would define us.
- V.P. Biden’s mantra about priorities: “don’t die on a small cross.”
- Karl Rove’s idea: “In politics, good gets better and bad gets worse…the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
- Bill Clinton’s conclusion: “Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans just fall in line.”
Halperin and Heilemann’s Obama is cool, distant, super-rational often to his disadvantage; their Romney is hapless and rudderless, self-sabotaging. Their profiles of the bit players and supporting actors are entertaining. Altogether, Double Down is a good, fast read.
Theodore White’s successful The Making of the President 1960 did so well, he followed with The Making of the President 1964, 1968, and 1972. That quadrennial series was launched with a book about a precedential presidential campaign, one augmented by television’s coverage and its broad influence on the Kennedy-Nixon battle. No doubt, the Halperin-Heilemann series, now two volumes in the library, will be followed by others, so popular have been their two inside-stories laden books. Their approach will likely stay the same- no sense changing horses in a winning race- but the real success of the books will be measured by the particular campaigns themselves, for the same reason that volume 1 was better than volume 2. They are competing against themselves as the presidential campaign chroniclers, at least until someone comes along with a different and better approach. 2016, here we come!
Andre Schiffrin, the legendary editor of Pantheon (30 years) and The New Press (20 years) died this month in Paris where he lived the last decades of his influential literary life. Andre was a unique editor, one whose name everyone in the business knew, and whose reputation most respected.
Schiffrin edited first class authors - Gunter Grass, Marguerite Duras, Michel Foucault, .D.Laing, Studs Turkel, Art Spiegelman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ada Louise Huxtable, Sissela Bok, and many others in his remarkable career. When Schiffrin was removed from his editorship of Pantheon in 1990 for economic reasons, his staff quit in complaint over the symbolic event as the moment in history when commerce overtook art in book publishing. Scores of top authors signed an advertisement in protest and picketed Random House offices in support of Schiffrin. It was dubbed “The Lunch Hour of Rage”.
Soon thereafter a 501(c)3 funded, public interest focused publisher, The New Press, was founded to publish authors without consideration of “the bottom line” and to carry on Schiffrin’s literary legacy.
Goldfarb’s column CapitaLetters appears regularly in the Washington Independent
Review of Books.