For anyone who paid any attention to the 2012 presidential election, the idea of reliving that fraught, bitter fracas by reading a 512-page book about it should, on the face of it, seem about as pleasant as a stroll through the emergency room. Recall the breathless, antic way recent presidential elections have been covered, though: with a heavy focus on the minute-by-minute minutiae of the campaign fight with less insight on the larger issues, i.e., why the candidates believe what they do and how their policies might affect Americans should they be elected. A person could come away from the coverage of the 2012 campaign uninformed, despite its ubiquitous presence in our lives. That’s why books like Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012 are indispensable (Dan Balz’s Collision 2012, published earlier this year, is another good one); they fill in all the gaps.
Double Down, a sequel of sorts to the writers’ mega-hit Game Change, is relentlessly addictive and smoothly streamlines the chaotic contest. Insightful and dotted with irresistible gossip (Newt Gingrich, for example, was “snoozing like a hibernating bear” in his plane seat at the moment his campaign staff tweeted the announcement he would run for President; they couldn’t wake him up), Double Down is a cinematic pleasure to read. Rather than ask the authors about what the book reveals about either President Obama or Mitt Romney’s personalities, I was curious how the book actually got written and why campaign books like theirs resonate so well with readers.
What is the writing process like for you all? How do you combine your voices into one?
Mark Halperin: We wrote a proposal for the first book that was based on some sample scenes that ended up in Game Change and the voice we did for that carried through in both books. We hear about collaborations that are rough, but we don’t really have very many disagreements either about substance—what to put in the book—or about the process, because there’s a shared sensibility during the interviews, as we evaluate interviews, what should go in. With all books like this, you have to throw some stories off the sled but it was pretty clear how relatively compact it has to be. We wrote the last book without using Dropbox and FaceTime and I would say those two entities probably deserve equal credit on the book. We both believe it would be impossible for one person to write a book like this, certainly within one year after the election.
John Heilemann: A lot of people assume—given the number of interviews involved, more than 500, with more than 400 people involved—that we split up and there’s a division of labor on the reporting. People are often surprised when they hear we do almost all the interviews together. Something we learned from the last book is that if we split it up, eventually both of us are going to have to go through and read the transcripts that the other person did and reading transcripts of interviews you’re not present for. Doing the interviews together allows us to experience them in real time and we come out of each interview knowing what the high points are, what are the things we want to follow up on. We live the reporting experience together and part of the reason there’s so little conflict on what we should put into the book is that we’re figuring it out on a rolling basis in real time together. We can’t imagine this book would’ve been finished without doing it together.
This book is a sequel and you write that in both cases, you felt that the stories behind the headlines hadn’t been told. Why do you think that is? Is it a failure of American journalism or does it have more to do with the hectic, instantaneous way campaigns are covered now?
Heilemann: Those may not be incompatible. When we first set out to write the first book, one of the first questions we discussed before we began on Game Change was, there’s a reason why people were not doing campaign books anymore. The traditional reason was, there’s so much coverage between television and print and magazines, newspapers, the web, blogs—increasingly Facebook and Twitter—this is the most over-covered campaign ever. What could possibly be of interest that you would put in a book that someone would want to read a year or more after the election? The publishing industry had kind of given up on this model of doing campaign books and so the question we asked ourselves was, What could we possibly have? As we sat there literally having this conversation in the shadow of the Capitol and deciding we were going to do the book, we found ourselves asking really basic questions of each other. At that time, the questions were, Do you understand why Barack Obama ran for president, how he convinced himself that he could with his very slim resume less than a year into the United States Senate and decide he could beat Hillary Clinton, who at that point seemed completely indomitable. Neither one of us, despite being very avid consumers of political journalism, felt we could tell that story verbally and explain it to each other. What was his thinking?
Another question that was burning up in 2008 that everyone in the world was obsessed with was, What role was Bill Clinton playing in his wife’s campaign? There are no closer students of the Clintons that we are and we felt we couldn’t answer that question. Later, we would ask, How did John McCain pick up Sarah Palin? We didn’t have the answers we thought were satisfying precisely because the reason people said you couldn’t do a book is the reason why you should do a book. The over-coverage has a quality to it, which is everybody’s running 100 miles an hour. We’ve often described it as a kid’s soccer game. Every kid on the field races to the ball and then the ball squirts out and they all run down the field towards the ball again but the basic thing that got the ball in motion was a basic question: What’s Bill Clinton’s relationship to his wife’s campaign? Why did Sarah Palin get picked? Everyone obsesses over those questions for 24 hours, or 48 hours, or maybe 72 hours. And then they don’t get the answers because the campaign’s in high gear and other stories intervene. The answer is left behind.
It’s not a failure of our colleagues in any way but the metabolism of the modern campaign and the nature of the way media now exists is that it is very good at swarm coverage in a short-term way; it’s not as good at digging into things that require more time and more double-checking and triple-checking against events to get to the heart of things. In the case of Game Change, we were able to find answers to the questions and we think it’s true in this book as well. Big questions that were not answered during the campaign that were left for us to excavate.
You all were present at almost every aspect of the campaign but when writing the book, you’re writing about people’s emotions, their personalities, on a very big stage. Did you find yourselves personally rooting for any particular people you write about in the book as you were writing it?
Halperin: No. We try to be empathetic to everyone in part because it’s the right posture journalistically but also because we’re trying to tell the stories as much as we can through the eyes of the candidates and their spouses and children and try to approach everybody with the same level of empathy and the same yearning to understand their motivations and their feelings.
Heilemann: And the same critical distance. It’s the mixture of being empathetic but detached. It sounds weird, but in our daily work, we’ve both criticized the President, we’ve both criticized Republicans; we can’t have a rooting interest. Part of the thing that worked with Game Change and that I think is working with Double Down is in a media environment that’s polarized, people buy a certain number of books or watch a certain number of cable shows because they want to have their views reinforced. We wrote the last book straight down the middle and one of the things we heard a lot was, This book shows no favor on either side. We were proud of that because that’s how we do our business generally and it’s the same approach we brought to this book. There’s no ideological bias in these books and it’s crucial to why they’re successful to the extent they’re successful.Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews. The photo above at left is of John Heilemann, photographed by Brigitte Lacombe, and above at right of Mark Halperin, photographed by Danny Kim for Time magazine.