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'Game Change,' a keen yet decadent look at politics

GAME CHANGE: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Harper, 448 pp., $27.99.

Nearly 50 years ago, the political journalist and historian Theodore H. White was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his insider's account of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, "The Making of the President 1960." His success with that and subsequent campaign chronicles helped establish topical nonfiction as a distinct genre, situated somewhere between journalism and history, that later practitioners such as David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Bob Woodward have used to make substantial contributions to our civic conversation.

"Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime" may be the logical extension of White's project.

And yet, this book by two extraordinary political journalists, New York magazine's John Heilemann and Time magazine's Mark Halperin, nonetheless achieves a kind of decadence.

This is a volume that might best be characterized as poli-porn.

That's not to say it isn't deeply and knowledgeably reported and presented with all the cool sophistication one would expect from two accomplished political reporters. But the question that begs to be answered is: To what end is all this effort and ability expended? Had we known many of the things Heilemann and Halperin disclose before the last general election, people would have had a chance to weigh the implications and vote accordingly. A year into Barack Obama's presidency, a great deal of this sensational material, while in all likelihood true, seems prurient.

Is there really any living American beyond the age of reason who doesn't know that there's a disparity between the lives our political leaders actually live and the ones they attempt to project in public? Is there any serious student of politics who doesn't know that most national political campaigns are snake pits filled with dysfunction and backbiting? If they weren't, who would be around to tell reporters like Heilemann and Halperin all these juicy inside stories? Still, if you're a political junkie - as this reader is - their book, while a guilty pleasure, also is compulsively readable. Once begun, you can't put it down. Poli-porn.

Given the nonstop publicity that's attended this book's rollout, you're probably already familiar with many of "Game Change's" more sensational revelations. Some of the politicians embarrassed on these pages already are into their second round of apologies; others are having their remarks debated on Larry King, which is the contemporary equivalent of being sentenced to the stocks.

One thing that gives "Game Change" its tabloid tang is the authors' decision to build so much of their account around the candidates' marriages. It's interesting but odd, given that political journalists of this experience are bound to know that we've had as least as many successful presidents who were miserably or indifferently married as we've had those who were happily attached.

Based on Heilemann's and Halperin's reporting, by the way, the best couple won. By their account, Barack Obama is deeply devoted to our current first lady and she to him. They enjoy each other's company and counsel more than that of any other person and both dote on their daughters.

By contrast, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, come across as the couple from hell. As reported in these pages, he is delusional, megalomaniacal, self-absorbed and breathtakingly irresponsible; she is condescending, viciously insulting and shrewish - Lady Macbeth with magnolias. It's hard to imagine two people whose public personas have been more at odds with the private reality than apparently has been the case with these people.

Similarly, Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, are reported here to quarrel incessantly, when they're not ignoring each other. At one point during the campaign, McCain's top aides became so concerned about reports that she was carrying on a long-term affair with a man in Arizona that they forced the candidate to confront her over it.

Hillary and Bill Clinton inevitably come in for their share of scrutiny, particularly surrounding the now well-rehearsed revelation that her campaign had to set up a secret three-person war room to handle what they expected to be a scandal over the former president's "serious" romantic infatuation with another woman . . . as opposed to his garden-variety messing around.

Dealing with the implications of her husband's muscular libido is reported here as just one source of the now-secretary of state's habitual paranoia and grudge-nourishing. Resentment and self-pity are reportedly her default emotions, and her fondness for conspiracy theories apparently was abetted in this campaign by writer Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime aide nicknamed "Grassy Knoll" by other campaign workers.

Hillary Clinton and Blumenthal were convinced that Michelle Obama had used the epithet "whitey" in an address to college students and spent an inordinate amount of time beating the bushes for a nonexistent tape. The candidate's paranoia extended to the press, whose coverage she labeled "a total hit job, day in and day out."

For sheer corrosive power, however, nothing in the book quite matches the portrait of Sarah Palin, whom McCain dragged into the race less than a week before the convention, after it became clear the party never would accept his pal Joe Lieberman, the Democratic defector, as his running mate.

(There's an unconsciously funny anecdote in which GOP strategist Karl Rove calls Lieberman and asks him not to accept the nomination for the sake of his good friend McCain, since it would split the party and doom his candidacy. Wow, did Rove ever misjudge his man on that one.) McCain's aides were taken aback by Palin's lack of knowledge (they couldn't, for example, get her to understand why there were two Koreas), her childish petulance and her sullenly uncommunicative behavior. Some came to wonder if she was mentally unstable or perhaps suffering from postpartum depression.

Even so, it's hard to come away from this account without feeling a stir of sympathy for an unprepared woman, plucked from obscurity and thrown into the shark-filled deep end of the pool, when she didn't even know she couldn't swim. Now, of course, she's a Fox News commentator.

Heilemann and Halperin have said elsewhere that they wrote "Game Change" because "what was missing" from the 2008 political coverage and what "might be of enduring value" was "an intimate portrait of the candidates and spouses who (in our judgment) stood a reasonable chance of occupying the White House." Well, now we have that and - though many will be entertained - it's a bit harder to see how we're better off.

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