January 17, 2010 7:20 pm

Game Change

'Game Change' cover

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
(Harper $27.99)

The delicious thing about this book – its guilty pleasure – is that it transports you to a parallel universe in which everything in the National Enquirer is true. In Game Change, the reader travels with two highly diligent and workaholic reporters – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, who are both clearly addicted to the human drama of US presidential elections.

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IN Non-Fiction

With the 2007/8 cycle the authors were blessed with America’s most gripping electoral pageant in a generation. On the basis of hundreds of off-the-record interviews, the book adds a mischievously gossipy dimension to that drama. Yet what the authors reveal – the delusions, character assassinations and low plottings of some of the most monstrous egos on the planet – elevates our understanding of what happened. It may be personal. But it is not trivial.

Among the candidates almost nobody emerges looking better. The one exception is arguably Barack Obama, whose ability to keep his head when all around are losing theirs is almost a freak of nature. So too is his Vulcan-like ability to divorce thought from feeling. Typically, when the bitter primary election between Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton was ending, the young senator was the sole person within his campaign to “harbour no animus” towards his rival.

For Mrs Clinton, things were initially different. “It was like a root canal,” she told friends after her first meeting with Mr Obama since he had beaten her. “I wanted to throw up.” After making a minor comeback to win the primaries in Ohio and Texas and thereby keep the race alive, an exhausted and frayed Mrs Clinton began to sound like Al Pacino: “I get really tough when people f*** with me,” she told her staff (many of whom by this stage had taken to hiding under the proverbial table).

Just before taking to the stage for a Republican debate, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and the rest lined up at the urinals and started chatting about how much they disliked Mitt Romney – poking fun at the former Massachusetts governor. A sudden hush descended when they realized he was standing behind them.

During the duller moments on the campaign bus, John McCain and his colleagues Joe Lieberman, the renegade Democratic senator, and Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, would watch the legendary four-minute YouTube clip of John Edwards vainly fussing over his hair in a TV studio. “Let’s look at it again,” McCain would suggest then they would roll about clutching their sides.

Among the candidates, Mr Edwards comes off the worst – a rampant narcissist whose grip on reality deteriorated as the campaign went on. Mr Edwards also offers a rare example of the National Enquirer getting a story right – one that revealed a mistress, a love child and the obligatory hush money. The mainstream media ignored it.

Because she has so much more reputation to lose, the feisty Elizabeth Edwards, who suffers from breast cancer, emerges even worse than her husband. Hitherto depicted almost as a saintly figure, Game Change’s release a week ago has put paid to all such illusions. Given her tendency to scream abuse at the lowliest staff, nobody on the Edwards campaign had a kind word to say about her.

The most shocking tales are about Sarah Palin, who last week took up a new role as a Fox News commentator, and whose recent book, Going Rogue, is selling in the millions. So uninformed was McCain’s running mate that advisors had to give her junior school tutorials on the first and second world wars, Vietnam and the cold war.

Palin insisted that Saddam Hussein launched the September 11 attacks. As the depth of her ignorance sunk in, as well as her total lack of interest in rectifying it, McCain’s senior staff members were “ridden with guilt over elevating Palin to within striking distance of the White House”.

Much of the book’s publicity has dwelt on the fact that Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, used the word “negro” – although in the context of wanting Obama to be America’s first black president.

More interesting is what we learn about the candidates themselves: their frailties, egos and almost super-human stamina.

At stages, both Edwards and Palin teetered on the edge of breakdowns. One of Edwards’ aides even feared he was suicidal. Given the stresses to which candidates are subjected, it is a wonder it does not happen to all of them. As Obama kept telling his staff: “This shit would be really interesting if we weren’t in the middle of it.”

The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief

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