The week Game Change was published in early 2010 coincided with my own version of journalistic martyrdom—watching my brain cells peel off like dandruff from enduring 60 hours of cable TV news in a week. From Morning Joe to Hardball to commercials for LifeLock, the authors of Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, were inescapable. Every time I switched channels, Halperin and Heilemann materialized peddling another nugget about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton from their book on the 2008 campaign. The Game Change publicity machine so dominated cable TV news during that first week of selling in 2010 that I could have read the book in the time I spent hearing about it.
It was not until I read all 473 pages of Double Down, the 2012 sequel to Game Change, that I realized I inadvertently had it right in the first place. The campaign books of Halperin and Heilemann are not designed to be read. They are instead written as fodder for cable TV news. Since both authors, whom I’ve gotten to know a bit over the years from the campaign trail, are adept reporters, they do come up with small scoops about the campaign that was. But these occasional bursts of true revelation are separated by a long march across familiar terrain—from Mitt Romney staggering through the primaries to Clint Eastwood staggering through his bizarre debate with a chair.
Even when the scenes in Double Down are vivid, their significance is often lost on anyone other than a few charter members of that informal coterie of political insiders that Halperin used to call the “Gang of 500.” The day after his self-indulgent keynote address at the Republican Convention, Chris Christie got into a public screaming match in in Tampa with Ron Kaufman, a senior Romney adviser. “Don’t bullshit me, Ron!” the New Jersey governor shouted. “You’re a fucking liar!” At issue was whether the Romney camp had leaked to Politico a true story that Christie had refused to resign as governor if he had been selected as Romney’s running mate.
So what? Readers do not need Halperin and Heilemann as their spirit guide to learn that Christie boasts a volatile temper. And American politics has come a long way in its tolerance for profanity since John Kennedy was asked during a 1960 presidential debate if he wanted to apologize for Harry Truman declaring (gasp) that anyone who votes Republican can “go to hell.” But the setup for this over-wrought anecdote about Christie in Tampa stretches over four pages and begins with the cringe-worthy sentence, “Big Boy had been looking forward to his big night in the Big Guava.”
Early in the book, in an awkward attempt to channel Romney’s inner voice, the authors write, “He had plenty of real things to worry about and wasn’t going to let himself be distracted by shiny objects.” Yet Double Down is all about shiny objects. It is as if the authors, in a desperate effort to justify their reported $5-million advance, opted for sleight-of-hand to divert readers from the predictable story of the actual 2012 campaign. So after luxuriating over Donald Trump’s ludicrous presidential pretensions early in the book, Halperin and Heilemann devote yet another page to this loathsome self-promoter in their final chapter. The only narrative justification (beyond having another Trump anecdote to peddle on TV) is that Obama’s research team discovered that in ads “voters always noticed and remembered Romney juxtaposed with a private jet branded TRUMP.”
A standard critique of the journalistic style of Double Down is that it represents a political operative’s view of the campaign devoid of irrelevancies like voters. In contrast, The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore White offered a demographic portrait of America at mid-century along with its behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Kennedy campaign. Halperin and Heilemann begin a typical chapter in mock-heroic style: “Karl Rove checked his in-box and saw another email from Romney.” The opening scene in the book, a riveting account of how Obama continued to muff debate preparation even after his mile-high meltdown in Denver, climaxes with an apocalyptic quote from David Plouffe, “If we don’t fix this, we could lose the whole fucking election.”
Double Down, in truth, peddles bite-sized dramatic nuggets rather than a nerd’s-eye view of how contemporary politics really works. The authors’ guiding philosophy seems evident: If it can’t be hawked on a talk show then it doesn’t belong in the book.
So unlike the post-election work of Sasha Issenberg in The MIT Technology Review and Jon Alter’s The Center Holds, Double Down is devoid of any sophisticated discussion of how the Obama and Romney campaigns massaged data. Halperin and Heilemann show little interest in unraveling one of the enduring mysteries of Campaign 2012: Why did the supposedly data-driven Romney lose touch with reality and believe to the end his overly optimistic internal polls and the eager Republican faces at campaign rallies? For all of its in-the-moment hype, Double Down exudes a slightly musty aroma, as if the authors are uncomfortable with how politics has changed with the advent of social media. In fact, Double Down may be remembered as a historical curiosity—the last campaign retrospective that fails to mention Facebook.
The character leaping off the page in Double Down is not (no surprise) the buttoned-down Romney or the self-contained Obama. Channeling their frustrations about a campaign that never was, Halperin and Heilemann invoke Chris Christie at every opportunity. They deliver one scoop late in the book: Romney had justifiable problems with the gaps in the materials that Christie provided as part of his vice-presidential vetting.
Double Down lavishes an over-written 17-page chapter (“Big Boy”) on Christie’s 2011 decision not to run. Tim Pawlenty, who actually sought the nomination and who, on paper, should have been Romney’s toughest challenger, is kissed off in four flat pages. But much of the Christie material in Double Down—complete with italicized thought bubbles about Christie’s internal deliberations—is not as original as it might seem to most readers. Many of the same Christie anecdotes appear in the far superior campaign book, Collision 2012 by Dan Balz. But Balz entirely skips the over-wrought drama and delivers the anecdotes in the form of a revealing on-the-record interview with Christie himself.
Bob Woodward’s White House books should be paired with a companion volume of commentary by an analyst who understands what it all means. The same technique would work with Double Down. The standard interpretation of Jeb Bush’s decision not to challenge Romney is that the former Florida governor thought it was too soon after his brother’s failed presidency. As Balz puts it, “Had his name been Jeb Smith, he might have become the Republican nominee.” But Double Down offers an alternative and far more dispiriting explanation: Jeb Bush wanted to buck-rake for four years before he ran for president. As Halperin and Heilemann write, channeling the inner Jeb, “If, God forbid, I’m in an accident tomorrow—I’m in a wheelchair drooling, saliva coming out of my mouth—who’s going to take care of me?” Double Down presents this wail from the scion of a financial as well as political dynasty without any sense of cocked-eyebrow skepticism as if it were plausible that Jeb Bush might end up having to pay for his nursing-home care through Medicaid.
In another throw-away anecdote, the authors report that Michelle Obama devours Morning Joe during her workout routine and then dashes off frenzied emails to Valerie Jarrett “about what this or that talking head had said.” This transmission belt (Morning Joe to Michelle to Jarrett to the president’s top advisers) might explain some of the win-the-news-cycle short-term thinking that has so marred the Obama presidency. (Maybe constant testing of the health-care website before it was launched might have been worth the risk of a few negative media leaks).
But it is probably unfair to fault Double Down for not putting Michelle Obama’s morning cable TV regimen into a larger context. Expecting Halperin and Heilemann to acknowledge the short-attention-span limitations of Morning Joe is akin to asking sharks to critique the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. Like Romney gulled by his own internal polling, the authors of Double Down are too much inside the media-political bubble to grasp any larger truths. And that is why Double Down is better fed to talking heads than read.