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The problem with campaign books

Marc Ambinder offhandedly remarks that "Political scientists aren't going to like" Game Change -- John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's compendium of reporting and, well, gossip from the 2008 election -- "because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press."

Putting aside the casual dismissal of political science, I'm skeptical that these tell-all campaign books record the elections as they're actually lived. So far, reporting on the book has revealed embarrassing sections on Bill and Hillary Clinton, John and Elizabeth Edwards and John and Cindy McCain. The Obamas come out relatively unscathed. That's common to this genre, of course. Losers come out badly. Winners come out well. Funny how that happens.

It's all sort of the truth, of course. It's not too much of a surprise that the Edwards campaign was a volatile, chaotic operation as suspicions about Rielle Hunter spread. But it's worth thinking through the incentives of the people interviewing with Heilemann and Halperin. Say your candidate lost. For one thing, you have to build a narrative that ends with your candidate losing. And given that you didn't sign onto the campaign thinking your candidate didn't have a chance, you have to explain what deviated from your optimistic take -- what went wrong, in other words -- rather than what was always likely to happen.

To the people running the campaign, the election is a story of, well, the campaign. Staff dysfunction will play a big part in that narrative because, well, you were on the staff, and staff dysfunction is very important to people who are part of it. The failures of the candidate, of course. He or she wasn't anything like the politician that the public thought they knew. The failures of strategy, because that's what the staffers were responsible for.

But as the political scientists will tell you, the data don't support the idea that how staffers "live" campaigns is particularly connected to how campaigns end up. Elections are primarily a story of the country, not the campaign. Of unemployment and demographics and events. You see that in the treatment of the winner. People remember the staffing dysfunctions, but they're delivered with a chuckle. The candidate's foibles don't distract from his virtues. Because the staffers are constructing a narrative backward from ongoing governance, the campaign is put into perspective. As the Obama folks have more than learned by now, the campaign was not about the campaign.

If all these books were relegated to their proper role as an interesting substory in the larger tale of the election, that would be fine. But they're not. Game Change has owned the headlines for the past few days because, well, campaign staffers and campaign reporters agree on at least one thing: It's all about the campaign. Beyond that, it's all about the ratings.

Dozens of reporters have now read the book, extracting the "juiciest" tidbits. If there's a thesis in the book, I'm not aware of it, as none of them have mentioned it. But I know a lot about suspicions that Bill Clinton was having another affair and names John McCain called his wife and archaic terms Harry Reid uses for African-Americans. The guys who stock supermarket magazines know gossip sells, and political reporters, bloggers, and hosts are not immune from the insight.

That's why I don't trust these books. The incentives, at every level, are a mess. The staffers are embittered and looking for their current jobs and biased and rationalizing. The writers know exactly what makes a tell-all into a media sensation. The reporters covering the book know exactly which parts will get ratings. And then the public learns about the campaign through this odd exercise, which is anything but a coordinated effort to inform them.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 12, 2010; 2:18 PM ET
Categories:  Books  
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If I found this book in a bathroom stall I would use it for TP. Villagers love to read about themselves. No one else cares.

Posted by: bmull | January 12, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

for once bmull I agree with you. Beltway gossip, unsourced and heavily edited (read distorted)to fit the outcomes is not worth anyone's time.

Posted by: srw3 | January 12, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"Political scientists aren't going to like [Game Change] ...."

More accurate would be "Political scientists aren't going to respond to Game Change with much more than a 'meh' because nothing in it is real relevant to political science." It's writing a gossipy book about Einstein and giving it to physicists. Everybody likes gossip, but it's not going to get you any closer to a unified theory of the universe.

Posted by: JEinATL | January 12, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Am I the only one who has found Fallows' "What happened in Copenhagen?" series vastly more intriguing than this typical treasury of tawdry trash being pawned off by the rest of the media? If the ginormous pile-on of stupid transpiring this week does nothing else, maybe it will compel others like me to find more satisfying sources of information. I can only hope.

Posted by: slag | January 12, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Yes, 'slag' I found Fallows coverage of Copenhagen far more useful on Atlantic, insightful and consequential. Many more people read that. I didn't bother to read Marc's comments of this book on Atlantic. I actually read about that comment on Drezner blog who has covered neatly and frankly Drezner has little more marbles than Ezra in that department.

But Ezra has done good here when he says:
"That's why I don't trust these books". Apart from some toilet gossip, I am not sure what worth such books are. They only make money for those authors who look upon such 'tell all books' as kind of IPO or pay back for all their previous engagements in the campaign....

My gripe - this is not even worth such a long post on this blog.

Gossip? The more interesting for us will be - has Geithner gone? Has Bernanke gone? How about James Kwak criticism of Bernanke in Foreign Policy?

Posted by: umesh409 | January 12, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Does the term "political scientist" make anyone else cringe? What a stupid idea.

They should say political producers, since Washington's foibles and activities are far closer to the theater than anything scientific.

Having said that, I dont really think there's any harm in reporters writing a gossipy book of this sort, since people like gossip and thats how show business works.

What this is more proof of is the total wasteland that is cable news, which without even watching I can imagine is all abuzz over these little tawdry details like a teenage girl hopped up on ecstasy.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 12, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Game Change is a good read if you don't expect too much of it. If you love politics and the backroom stories, you will like this book. No need to make it into anything more than it is.

Posted by: LindaB1 | January 12, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

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