Last year it seemed almost impossible to walk through an airport without noticing someone reading a copy of Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The book captured the public’s imagination through a vivid account of the personalities in the 2008 presidential campaign. For Americans who couldn’t quite let go of the long campaign season, Game Change offered one last hurrah.
The success of the book took many publishers by surprise, as it resuscitated a genre that seemed dead: the election narrative. Notwithstanding the quality of such books released in recent years, these were tough books to sell in the age of twenty-four-hour news. Blogs, websites, cable television shows and other media outlets had provided every possible detail of a campaign before these books could be written. The only way to get any attention, it seemed, was with a dramatic hook, like Joe Klein’s Primary Colors (1996), which Klein published anonymously and which kept Washington buzzing for weeks.
Initially, the popularity of the book seemed to reflect the sheer drama of 2008 and the Kennedyesque popularity of the new president. After all, who wouldn’t want to read a juicy account that somehow promised new information about the campaign when everything seemed to have already been said?
Yet about a year and a half later, as Game Change is released in paperback, the book reads differently. As many of Obama’s supporters have become more sober about the president’s ability, and his willingness, to change the way that politics works, we can read the book for the limits of the genre it represents, rather than for the saga of the candidates and the handlers.
The election narrative dates back to Theodore White’s The Making of a President (1961). White’s account of the 1960 election allowed readers to delve deep into the drama of the primaries and general election. Democrats offered White unparalleled access to their campaigns, and since he started covering the race early he captured John F. Kennedy from beginning of his national political emergence.
Readers enjoyed a first-hand account of the story of Kennedy, a charismatic candidate who, in White’s mind, offered a fresh perspective on the big issues of the day. White recounted standing in the crowds who came to see Kennedy speak, "sensing far off on the edge of it a ripple of pressure beginning, and the ripple, which always started at the back, would grow like a wave, surging forward as it gathered strength.", White opened up the personal world of the candidates. Employing the literary style of a fiction writer to heighten the drama, White offered readers a feel for what it was like to be on the campaign trail and an intimate portrait of the victor.
The book was smash hit. The Making of a President remained on the best-seller list for over forty weeks. White received a Pulitzer Prize. Just as important, a new kind of book had been born: the first cut of history about an election.
White did come under criticism in the coming years; critics argued that he had dismissed Richard Nixon while mythologizing Kennedy. White had spent more time with Kennedy, whose advisors purposely fed the writer favorable stories (and hid unfavorable information). Historian W.J. Rorabaugh has challenged White’s account, characterizing it as a "morality tale in which the virtuous, liberal Kennedy conquered the morally ambiguous Nixon."