It’s a shame that Harry Reid’s comments in the new account of the 2008 election, “Game Change,” received so much attention. The book has many more interesting stories, and the Senate majority leader is getting a bum rap for his racial remarks.
Journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann weave a riveting narrative of the most interesting election in a generation. It depicts the brilliance of Barack Obama’s candidacy, the dysfunctional Bill and Hillary Clinton political machine, the hopelessness of the John McCain quest.
Despite fascinating anecdotes about the Clintons, Sarah Palin, John Edwards and McCain, most of the focus has been on Reid’s private comment that the country was ready to embrace Obama as a “light-skinned” African American, “with no Negro dialect.”
The Nevada Democrat apologized for his remarks, and Republicans are demanding his resignation, noting that their onetime party leader, former Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, was forced out in 2005 when he ventured that the country would have been better off if segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.
Reid’s private comments were clumsy; the man is a model of inarticulacy. The difference is that the Lott remarks were demonstrably wrong; only kooks believe America would have been better off electing a segregationist.
Reid, by contrast, was basically right on the appeal of a lighter-skinned black politician, wrote the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, one of the country’s most influential columnists and an African-American. It is hardly a “coincidence,” he said, that black political pioneers such as Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell or Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who in 1966 became the first black senator in almost a century, are lighter skinned.
More interesting are the juicy details offered about major 2008 players. There are few surprises (the revelation that Hillary Clinton came close to making a presidential run in 2004 being an exception) but “Game Change” adds useful, rich material to the overall canvas. These include:
The low-life character of John Edwards, who was almost a heartbeat away from the Oval Office as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a major contender in 2008. He deluded his followers and himself.
‘Married to a Monster’
Shortly before the 2008 Democratic convention, after revelations that he had fathered an illegitimate child with a campaign worker while his wife was recuperating from cancer, and lied about it, Edwards gathered his staff to plot how he could be Obama’s attorney general. By then his camp had had it with him. His wife, Elizabeth, explained she denied her husband had fathered the child because it would mean “I’m married to a monster.”
The personal and political breakdown of the Clintons during the election. Hillary Clinton, the once almost-certain nominee, comes across more as a cause of her demise than a victim, at times lashing out recklessly at her husband. She had a misplaced faith in an inept campaign team and an inability to understand either the political climate or her candidacy.
Bill Clinton’s reputation is further tarnished by episodes of irrationality, profane screaming and narcissistic self-pitying. One of the worst was the bitter break with the late Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy. He infuriated the Massachusetts liberal icon when, lobbying on his wife’s behalf, he dismissed Obama as a guy who a few years before “would have been getting us coffee.” Kennedy would have endorsed Obama anyway; Bill Clinton facilitated and expedited it.
Palin’s lack of readiness for the national stage, much less national office. Vice President Dick Cheney, according to the book, called McCain’s choice for his running mate “reckless,” a charge the Cheney camp denies but appears true.
In a dreadful political environment for Republicans, the former Alaska governor briefly energized the party and may even have helped McCain a little. If the Arizona senator had chosen a combination of Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill as a running mate, it wouldn’t have made any difference. It just wasn’t his year.
Still, McCain’s response to the financial crisis that September leaves no doubt that the Republican nominee had a steep learning curve on dealing with financial and economic issues.
During those tense moments, he called for a high-level White House meeting with President George W. Bush, Obama and congressional leaders, and showed up completely unprepared. In a conversation with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, he suggested the financial crisis was like the management difficulties that had recently beset Home Depot Inc. “‘No, it’s not,’” a flabbergasted Bernanke replied, the book recounts.
The dominant story of the book, as of the year, is the rookie politician who blew by all the veterans to become the first African-American president. In contrast to his rival, Obama dominated the White House session on the financial crisis and separately wowed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Bernanke with his understanding.
His campaign, though, wasn’t completely smooth, or without mistakes and tensions.
The always seemingly cool Obama got testy and even despondent on occasion, the authors chronicled. There was friction between the “suits” -- David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, the white guys running the campaign -- and Michelle Obama and close friend Valerie Jarrett. Once, Obama brought his friend, Christopher Edley, dean of the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, to lecture the suits on how they were abusing the candidate.
What really emerges, however, is that for all these imperfections, Obama was the only candidate who understood both the times, the clamor for change, and his own candidacy. This became apparent early on in the January 2008 Iowa Caucuses, when record numbers of white Midwesterners turned out, enabling Obama to deliver a crushing defeat to Clinton and Edwards.
The book has a huge flaw, as many of the behind-the-scenes anecdotes aren’t sourced. Almost all ring true, though there is some obvious hyperbole from people with an axe to grind who hide behind anonymity.
For the Obama optimist, the campaign was a forerunner for his presidency, replete with high drama, and low points from which the force of his self always comes back. To detractors, it suggests that he was more ready for the poetry of campaigning than the prose of governing.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)