Politicians — They're Just Like Us!
Hillary Clinton is a brilliant, paranoid bitch. Barack Obama is clever but arrogant. The less said about John Edwards, the better—ditto for his wife, Elizabeth. Okay, fine: she’s an “abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” None of the luminaries John Heilemann and Mark Halperin follow in Game Change, their chronicle of the 2008 presidential election, come out with dignity intact. After all, the election unfolded in a series of increasingly sordid scandals, from Reverend Wright to all that was Sarah Palin; the news that Edwards had fathered a child out of wedlock while campaigning was just the icing on the already-salacious cake. In that sense, Heilemann and Halperin’s tome is nothing more than a longer version of the soundbites emanating throughout the electoral circus.
But the manner in which these journalists gathered their material sets them apart from their colleagues, even if the material itself is more of the same. In an authors’ note, Heilemann and Halperin explain that their book is based on “more than three hundred interviews with more than two hundred people conducted between July 2008 and September 2009.” But these interviews were also “conducted on a ‘deep background’ basis,” meaning the authors agreed not to identify their sources after quoting or paraphrasing them.
To justify their unsourced information, Heilemann and Halperin say that unless they depended on deep background interviews, they would not have elicited “the level of candor on which a book of this sort depends.” Reasonable enough; what former Clinton staffer, for example, would want to admit that she’s the “senior-most lieutenant” quoted as thinking, “This woman shouldn’t be president” after Hillary’s defeat in the Iowa caucus?
Game Change’s haze of anonymity allows for all manner of juicy tidbits. That nasty summation of Elizabeth Edwards has surfaced again and again in reviews of and articles about the book; it could be Game Change’s most famous sound bite, second only to Harry Reid’s now-notorious assessment of Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect.” Eager readers have made Game Change the best-selling book in America for four weeks straight, according to The New York Times, as well as the best-selling nonfiction title on Amazon.
But although Game Change is indisputably entertaining, its unsourced nature has grabbed negative attention, too. Clark Hoyt of The New York Times notes that while Bob Woodward also used deep background interviews in State of Denial, he included “29 pages of source notes” at the end of his book—something the authors of Game Change failed to do. Unless it’s properly cited, there seems to be little that differentiates deep background research from garden-variety gossip.
Heilemann and Halperin, of course, resist being labeled as foremen at a rumor mill. Gossip “implies loose cocktail-party chatter,” Heilemann told Entertainment Weekly. “The only things we put into the book were things that had real significance for the race.”
His claim is debatable—as hilarious as it is to read how McCain once exploded in reference to his daughter Meghan (CC ’06), saying “How many fucking times can you fucking graduate from fucking Columbia?” that moment doesn’t seem like it was particularly important to his campaign. Nevertheless, Heilemann’s assertion raises an interesting question: When is gossip a real political force?
The answer, apparently, is “often.” Game Change proves that in the 2008 election, the line between idle chatter and truth was wafer-thin. Rumors of John Edwards’s infidelity flitted about his camp long before the media caught on. And the fact that Edwards was eventually exposed by the National Enquirer is even greater evidence that gossipmongering and legitimate reporting aren’t always as different as elite media types might have us believe. The anonymous sources who confirmed to the Enquirer that Edwards was having an affair bear a remarkable resemblance to Heilemann and Halperin’s unnamed informants.
Then there’s Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue—released last November—which seems as though it was crafted chiefly in order to put rumors to rest. The second half of the book systematically refutes every claim made against Palin during the election, anticipating the charges raised against her in Game Change. While Heilemann and Halperin contend that Palin flunked her interviews with Katie Couric because she failed to prepare properly for them, Palin preemptively refutes them by saying she was merely “annoyed and frustrated with many of her [Couric’s] repetitive, biased questions.” While Game Change notes the campaign’s astonishment at Palin’s clothing bills, the former governor shifts the blame to her handlers: “I never asked the New York stylists to purchase clothes, many of the items were never worn ... and in the end the wardrobe items were all returned.” Over and over again, Palin portrays herself as an innocent victim of Game Change-style gossip, blaming members of the liberal media for telling tales without any research.
But Palin fights gossip by going to the tabloid playbook. Going Rogue includes two sections of full-color photos printed on glossy paper, pictures that are meant to prove to readers that the Palins are a normal family that engages in normal activities like basketball and snowmobile races. It’s a calculated move—straight out of the “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!” school of reportage. She also takes digs at the likes of Couric (“the lowest-rated news anchor in network television”) and McCain strategist Steve Schmidt (“As he lectured, I took in his rotund physique”), who has openly criticized Palin since the election. These snide comments are in the vein of Perez Hilton, not Thomas Jefferson.
But really, can you blame her? Both snark and shady sourcing sell—and since the publishing industry is as imperiled as the blobfish, that matters more than concerns about ethics. The distinction between legitimate reporting methods and illegitimate ones will no doubt continue to shrink. Soon, the rules of tabloid journalism may become the rules for journalism, period. Whether or not this spells a death knell for journalistic integrity is still up in the air. Those who loved Game Change probably don’t think it’s a big deal. People like Clark Hoyt, though, might want to consider making a career change.