‘Game Change’: somewhere Theodore H. White is smiling

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It has been a long time since a book about a presidential election campaign has generated as much interest as “Game Change” (Harper) by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

The age of 24/7 coverage of politics on cable television and gossip blogs on the Internet seemed to have made books like Theodore H. White’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Making of the President 1960” obsolete.

Back in those days, the public didn’t have much access to the day-to-day campaign trail, so White’s in-depth coverage of the nuts and bolts of the Kennedy-Nixon race was eye-opening.

White’s book was a huge bestseller and the journalist went on to write book-length accounts of the 1964, 1968 and 1972 races. The last two books didn’t do so well because by then we were in the age of “new journalism” and a younger reading public had moved on to the more colorful campaign coverage of Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson.

Heilemann and Halperin have put the zing back into book-length campaign coverage through old-fashioned digging and through the sheer drama of the last presidential election cycle.

The co-authors have already been widely criticized for taking a more “personal” approach to the candidates — Tim Rutten of The Los Angeles Times called the book “poli-porn” — but in this post-Clinton era you have to consider facets of a candidate’s life that were off-limits in 1960.46795545

Some of the most gripping material in “Game Change” involves John and Elizabeth Edwards and their crazed decision to keep pursuing the 2008 presidential nomination even after they knew John’s extramarital affair would inevitably become public.

On The Daily Beast blog this week, commentator Lee Siegel attacked the two authors for what he considers their attempt to smear the reputations of the Edwards: “They didn’t hurt anyone but themselves. Why do we hate them?”

Whether or not we “hate” the Edwards for their behavior, I think Heilemann and Halperin have added vital historical material to the 2008 race by exposing a couple who were willing to destroy their party’s chances to take the White House — and, indeed, were willing to risk the future of the country — because of their own hubris.

The personal material in “Game Change” isn’t just riveting, it’s important.

Elizabeth knew about the cheating but continued to campaign for her husband — an act that was not just self-destructive but dangerous to the rest of us. Suppose Barack Obama had chosen Edwards as his running mate and the tawdry affair came out after the convention? Where would we be now?

Rutten and Siegel seem to be mired in nostalgia for a past American media and political landscape — a time before the sexcapades of a sitting president resulted in his impeachment.

In the 2008 election, John Edwards’s sex life, Sarah Palin’s intelligence, and the personal peccadillos of Hillary Clinton’s husband were all germane to what happened behind the scenes. They also could have played a role in the future of our nation’s government.