Remember all the fun we had last year choosing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? Think of the 4-year-old girl whose YouTube video of her crying over too much “Bronco” Obama and Mitt Romney elicited knowing nods from voters across the nation.
Yes, it’s time to re-live those not-so-magical days. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, political writers at Time and New York magazines, respectively, as well as MSNBC talking heads, reprise the formula of gossipy insider tidbits from the various candidates and campaigns that made "Game Change" a bestseller in 2010 and, later, an HBO movie.
"Game Change" told the story of Obama’s unexpected rise to the presidency in 2008 against the duo of Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as the tantalizing tale of how an obscure Alaskan governor named Sarah Palin became the focal point of the Republican ticket despite her role as the running mate and not the nominee.
Double Down lacks Palin as candidate and Obama-Hillary as campaign heavyweight bout, hoping to glean drama from a beleaguered president (“I just don’t know if I can do this,” he tells his inner circle after a poor round of debate prep just weeks before Election Day) and an unintentionally entertaining crop of would-be GOP nominees (Rick Perry and his faulty memory, Herman Cain’s damaging flirtations and questionable “9-9-9” math, Tim Pawlenty and his awful T-Paw nickname, and so on).
Halperin and Heilemann have become brand-name collaborators, generating the kind of resentment that tends to come with the territory. And, in some cases, the authors all but beg for scorn, employing a parade of 50-cent words (“blenched,” “acuminate,” and “repined” among them – Michael Kinsley cataloged the list in much more exhaustive and withering fashion in a recent assessment for The New York Times Book Review) while dropping names, acronyms, and abbreviations in DC-speak bursts. Thus sentences such as this one: “Watching WJC in 2008, BHO thought QED.” Translation: Barack Hussein Obama watched William Jefferson Clinton and thought, “Quad erat demonstradum (which was to be demonstrated).” Well, sure, it’s so obvious.
Then, too, there is the lauding of Washington monuments in the source game. Hello to Bob Barnett, the lawyer whose clients have included WJC, among many others. Halperin and Heilemann note his counsel during the president’s debate prep with this attribution: “Barnett sagely noted.”
To put an exclamation point on the power corridors inhabited by these co-authors, the book closes with a smug set of bold-faced VIP thank-yous worthy of a Vanity Fair-Politico mash-up. Halperin and Heilemann offer their “shout-outs” (When does slang jump the shark? When it’s used in campaign tell-alls) to celebrity chef Mario Batali and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, to their beloved Ritz-Carltons, to Tom Hanks and “everyone at the HBO juggernaut,” and (sigh) “a panoply of common pals to whom we frequently turn for aid, comfort, or cocktails.” How did their favorite single-malt scotch get left off the list? Perhaps it's earmarked for the 2016 campaign book.
They also like to refer to New York as Gotham or Gotham City. Denver is the Mile High City and, well, you get the idea.
And yet, for all these complaints, anyone who enjoys politics will be hard-pressed to resist at least some of the juicy items on display. Sure, you know the final score and you remember at least some of the antics, if not all the details. (How much bloviating did Newt Gingrich do? Did Romney really need that much money to defeat the likes of Rick Santorum?).
But how many knew the trivial and not-so-trivial details inside the campaign bubbles to be found in "Double Down"? That, for example, the Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was so frugal in her campaign that she spent $19 for a hair cut at Fantastic Sam’s. Or that the Obama team polled and analyzed the impact of dumping Vice President Joe Biden from the 2012 ticket in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before relenting when they discovered the bounce would be negligible.
Sure, the authors get in their own way when they dub the president’s campaign advisor David Axelrod “the mustachioed message maven” and describe his strategists and political allies as “the Obamans” a zillion times or more. But they make up for it with thorough accounts from all sides of the long slog to 2012: for example, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie being wooed by Henry Kissinger, Bush 43 and other Republican luminaries to enter the race, but to no avail. Then, too, they document the effects of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s experimental back surgery and insomnia, health challenges that crippled his campaign, exacerbating an impulsive candidacy.
And then there are the infinite double-crosses within parties and campaigns, media leaks of all manner of personal and professional embarrassments to Politico and other media outlets. Here, too, Halperin and Heilemann go beyond speculation and lay out which campaign staffers performed hatchet jobs on which rivals, from Jon Huntsman’s aides leveling behind-the-scenes punches to prospective rival Mitch Daniels to White House dissatisfaction with then-chief of staff Bill Daley, “derided ... as an officious dinosaur.”
Many of these details can be written off as gossip, even minor gossip, but, in total, the accumulation of anecdotes adds up to a portrait of what life feels like inside a national campaign. My conclusion: not very good. Consider the constant momentum swings, the desperate bids for belief and dignity in an environment hostile to both, and the endless series of near-misses capable of shifting momentum. Among the examples of the latter: Christie mulling a GOP bid but passing instead, Obama receiving a late boost from the presidential role of healer-in-chief after Hurricane Sandy.
And, of course, there is the ever-present improbability and absurdity. Witness the president’s campaign team trying to steel Obama for a better debate after Romney flays him in Denver.
“The advice was: Be more like Biden, whose combativeness, scripted moments, and bluff calls on (Romney running mate Paul) Ryan (‘Not true!’) had all proved effective tactics,” the authors write.
Whether a lengthy magazine article could have made these points sufficiently matters little since Halperin and Heilemann, as Kinsley put it, have joined a political blockbuster fraternity consisting of themselves and Bob Woodward and no one else.
For armchair politicos and the real-life campaign creatures flipping to the index to learn of their mentions, "Double Down" satisfies the craving for a fizzy dose of presidential politics to gulp down before the mid-terms next year set the stage for primary season. Iowa, New Hampshire, Hillary, Christie, and the rest of the parade will be back soon enough, but reliving 2012 should help Blue and Red Staters alike survive the long cold winter in the meantime.
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.