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'Game Change': The authors discuss politics as unusual

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The 2008 presidential election was historic both in terms of the nature of its candidates and its near-complete level of media saturation, but political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann somehow managed to put together a campaign book chock full of behind-the-scenes details, often juicy, that were overlooked the first go-round. That book, Game Change (click to see the EW review), quickly became a best-seller, demonstrating that over 15 months later, we as a nation are still captivated by that year-long mad rush towards the White House. The two authors spoke with EW about doing hundreds of interviews, how they deal with accusations of gossip-peddling, and their exhaustive attempts to report all the fear and loathing on the campaign trail.

Why do you think so many people are still interested in this particular election, over a year later, even though they know the ending?

John: We started out with a notion as we were covering the campaign that this was an unusual election on a lot of different levels, but it was unusual in particular in that the candidates who were front-and-center were bigger-than-life characters. You had here people who were more interesting than your average politician. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, these are all people who had celebrity stature. We often like to joke that any race where Rudy Giuliani is the seventh most interesting person is a pretty colorful race. And we thought that all the historic circumstances around the campaign in combination with these characters who had clearly riveted the country in a way that we hadn’t seen before in a presidential election, we thought that there was some chance, that if we rendered the high human drama of what it was like to go through it, and how it changed them, and how the strengths and weaknesses in their characters affected the outcome, that people would, a year later, still have some interest in it, if we did our jobs right.

In the prologue you say that it’s essentially a love story between Obama and Clinton. But parts almost feel like a Greek tragedy…

Mark: We hoped to write a book that wouldn’t be seen as a political book that only people in the beltway would read. What we thought was that these were bigger-than-life figures, many of them iconic, and there was a lot of tragedy and comedy and high drama that, if we told the story right, would reveal these famous people but in a brand-new way. And we took a bet that if we took our time and did a lot of reporting, that we could reveal that emotion that is behind the scenes.

Is it difficult for you to do so much reporting and have to put out the book with no named sources and no verifiable evidence of that reporting?

John: Well, it’s a necessary bargain that we had to strike. At the same time, we did more than 300 interviews with over 200 people and very few of them are less than an hour, an hour-and-a-half long. Many of them were two and three and four hours long. Some were five and six hours long. And there were many sessions where we’d be reporting with people all day from 6:30 in the morning at breakfast till 11:30 at night at the end of dinner. It was almost like doing oral histories for people. We were in a good position, because of the fact that we both had been reporting on politics for a long time, and we had long-standing relationships with virtually everybody we spoke to, which gave them a high degree of trust with us and allowed us to know where their biases were. Those who did have axes to grind, we could see that as clearly as you could see it, and then correct for it. Everything that people told us we went and checked it out as thoroughly as you could possibly check it out. We double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked. And on the question of verifiability, we were both enormously gratified by the fact that, with the exception of Sarah Palin on one particular point with which we disagree with her, there has been no one who has challenged the factual accuracy of anything in the book. We put our reputations on the line with this, and we know that if you’re going to write a book like this, it’s going to get high scrutiny. So the fact that someone like Elizabeth Edwards has authorized her people to come forward publicly and verify that the stories in the book are effectively true, the proof is in the pudding. Not having the facts challenged, we think, speaks well of the degree of rigor and care that we brought to the project.

Mark: We knew when we undertook the scale of what we were doing that in the age in which we live there would be extra skepticism and questions asked. And while no one who’s publishing a book is free from concern, it was not amongst our concerns whether we were on solid footing with the accuracy of the book. We were confident with that, because we did take such care. And that wasn’t done on the fly or after the fact. It was done literally before we started reporting the book, we asked ourselves, “How are we going to do this in a way where we are bulletproof on the question of accuracy, and we can focus on storytelling and trying to bring these characters to life?”

How do you respond to accusations that this book is gossipy?

Mark: I think anyone who’s read the book can see that it deals with the high human drama in this campaign. In many cases, what was a reality for these candidates, and their spouses and their campaigns, was dealing with aspects of their life that was out of the public realm. But that doesn’t make it gossip. It’s all accurate and in many instances, people can see, with almost every one of these couples, questions about potential marital infidelity, about how they related to their children, these were at the center of what the campaigns were dealing with. These were central to what was going on in explaining why Barack Obama was able to win this election.

John: I’ll just add to that, to be a little bit more precise about what Mark meant. We would talk to the senior advisers of these candidates and we would ask them, for instance, about the question of whether John McCain had had an affair with Vicki Iseman. There was a period of time during that campaign where that was the thing that was consuming more attention, more man-hours, more phone calls, more time and effort and energy than any single other thing that they were dealing with in that campaign. To not report about that in the book seems to us to be ridiculous, if you’re trying to give a real picture of what happened in the McCain campaign. And it’s the same case as with some of the stuff around Bill Clinton and the same case with Rielle Hunter in the Edwards case. These were the things that obsessed the people who were involved with running these campaigns, all of them, for large quantities of time.

Mark: In addition to being consequential, we put in things judiciously that we felt was essential to create a full portrait of these characters and historical figures.

John: There’s also a level of persnicketiness and, I would say, some degree of elitism in some people’s dismissal of the thing. People are riveted to care about politics because of its human aspects, and people sometimes want to preserve a more pristine image of this, but this is the kind of stuff that happens in American families, it happens throughout American life. People don’t hold these political figures on pedestals anymore; they recognize that they aren’t stick figures. They are people just like the rest of us, and they have similar kinds of travails, and we don’t think there is any reason to shy away from those truths, those truths that people confront in their daily lives all the time.

Were you surprised at what was pounced upon when the book came out? Like the Harry Reid quote, for example?

Mark: It surprised us that that got a disproportionate amount of early attention. We do think that one of the biggest stories in the book does involve Harry Reid, but it’s the fact that Harry Reid, working in what we call “the conspiracy of whispers” with other Democratic senators, coaxed Barack Obama into the race in order to keep Hillary Clinton from being the nominee. We knew that we had a lot of news stories and in the marketplace of the 24/7-news cycle, you never know what will catch the initial spark. But we’re happy that, over time, as people got a hold of the book and read it, hopefully they see that the book is more than just a few of the early news breaks. Hopefully, they see it as a narrative that brings to life the behind-the-scenes of what happened in this campaign.

The press plays a big role in this campaign, and clearly there was a lot that it missed. Is it weird for you to write about that when you yourselves were members of the press during that time?

John: I think we include ourselves in that category implicitly. Mark and I, as journalists, have hyperventilated with the best of them. I think it’s a description of the media culture that exists; we don’t try to hold ourselves apart from it. We certainly didn’t write the book as a piece of media criticism, either explicit or even implicit. We did recount the candidates and their campaigns’ views about instances where they thought there was a double standard. For the same reasons we didn’t get into polling and strategy and tactics, we tried to focus as much as could on the principle candidates and how the experienced the election on a human level. For the same reason we excluded those other things, which are perfectly worthy topics, we excluded trying to get into the question of analyzing or certainly pontificating on the press’s performance in 2008.

What do you think is the reason that there’s so much in this book that hasn’t been revealed until just now?

Mark: I think it’s a lot of reasons, some of which we’ve mentioned. That we had relationships that in some cases go back two decades, that we did hundreds of interviews most of which were very long, that we had this two-way trust, got people invested in what we were doing, and we took the risk of taking our time. It is a cumulative process of doing ten interviews, discussing them at length, figuring out three more people who weren’t on the original list that we need to interview, and then going back to two of the original ten and interviewing them again. Building that mosaic slowly, and carefully and thoughtfully, is a way to bring out information in the day-to-day rigors of 24/7 Internet, cable-TV coverage. You just can’t get back to people enough, and build enough of the picture, as you can over time.

John: The fact that there’s such a non-stop news cycle means that questions of enormous momentary obsessive interest: How did Palin get on the ticket? What happened to Joe Lieberman’s nomination? Things that you would read 24 hours or 36 hours of intense coverage about during the campaign, would go away still unresolved. Because of the rush to get onto the next thing, the questions would be left unanswered. And so we looked at that and thought there are an awful lot of questions, after having followed the elections very closely, there were a lot of small questions, and a lot of big questions, that we felt we still didn’t have satisfactory answers to. The question of how Barack Obama actually decided to get into the race, we’d read everything on the topic and we still felt like we didn’t understand how that happened. What was Bill Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign? Same thing. So if there were big questions like that and millions of smaller questions, if all of those questions were still unanswered it seemed to us that there was still a lot of fertile ground left to till. And if we took our time, and did it once out of the heat of battle, when people were free to talk, but close enough to the battle so that people’s memories were still fresh, that we would be able to show some things that hadn’t been picked over to death by the daily and weekly news coverage.

Do you think the 24/7-news cycle actively obfuscated some of that stuff?

Mark: The demands of news organizations and the limits of human capacity means that you just can’t go back and interview the same guy three times, let alone half a dozen times. It’s just not possible. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. Everybody’s got to file a lot, and the big stories create a lot of buzz, and then people move on.

I feel like presidential elections are relatively fleeting in people’s memories. It seems like, now, in people’s minds, Michael Dukakis might as well be Dewey. Do you hope this will help keep the 2008 election fresh in people’s minds?

John: First of all, Michael Dukakis will always hold a special, vivid place in our memories. So, we’ve not forgotten the Duke. One of the advantages we have is that these characters are characters that will not soon fade into distant memory. The Clintons are two of the most important people in the modern era of politics. Barack Obama has broken and shattered an enormous historical precedent by becoming the first African-American president. John McCain is someone who, because of his whole life, his war-hero status and his role in the Republican Party and two elections, will be remembered. These are people who we think, I hope, will remain pretty vivid in people’s minds and people will still care about them in the future. We made a bet that people will care about them a year later, and it seems to be true. The key, big characters in this book…Sarah Palin is not going to fade from the stage any time soon, I don’t think. We were blessed, I think, with characters who may have a longer shelf-life than the average presidential candidate.

Were you ever pressured to release it earlier so it was timelier?

John: We were not. In fact, we were very clear from the beginning with our publishers that in order to do the kind of book that we wanted to do, that we had to push the outer limit on what would be plausible for when to publish the book. HarperCollins accepted this argument from the beginning, we said to them that we didn’t want to rush the book out. They were supportive of it from the beginning. We set this date, we thought a year was about the longest that we could wait. Of course we were nervous throughout the year as other accounts came out, other book-length accounts, we were worried we would lose news. In some cases, we lost some stories to those books by fine colleagues of ours. But we were convinced that if we didn’t take this time we’d never be able to get to where we wanted to get. And in truth, we were reporting all the way up to the end. We turned the book in in October and we were still doing reporting until the very last moment.

Do you see this as a unique occurrence, where you have a comprehensive overview of an election, from the principles, reported in real-time?

Mark: A lot of what we were able to get, we thought if we didn’t get, it would be lost to history. People in campaigns don’t write down a lot, there aren’t a lot of memos or documents. So this was about being in the right place at the right time, interviewing people when their memories were fresh and they were invested in telling the true story of what happened. Our suspicion is that if we hadn’t done this, and someone tried to do it two years from now, five years from now, the memories would be too deadened and stuff would be literally lost forever.

I was surprised at how much you used the title phrase in various incarnations. Did you know when you were writing it that it would be your title?

John: The title naturally flowed from our perception of the election. We had the title before we started writing. But it seemed like we tried to use the phrase throughout the text when it was appropriate. Part of the reason we called the book Game Change was because it was an election in which there were these big events that threatened to turn the whole narrative on its head at various times. And we had seen that when we had covered it in real-time, the more we reported on it the more we were struck by how many of them there were. There are always twists and turns in any election, but there were an awful lot of big, potentially terrain altering events in this one. That’s how we came to the title. Then we tried to apply the title in the text when it was appropriate and when we came upon the events that caused us to title the book that way, we used the phrase when it seemed apt.

Last question, did either or both of you read Sarah Palin’s book?

Both: Yes.

And what did you think of it?

Mark: I thought it was interesting.

John: We were surprised at how few chapters were in it.

Mark: My answer, off the record, to that is, “I have no comment.”