The Last Clinton Melodrama? (And Other Sensationalist Game Change Gossip)

Is this the last Clinton melodrama? There is a certain air of finality to it. Not because nothing more can happen, but because the most likely melodramas of the future (and most recent past) are laid out and have received far less pushback than they would have before.

I'm referring to the reading of and reportage on the Clintons from the 2008 presidential campaign contained in the gossipy new book, Game Change, by East Coast magazine reporters Mark Halperin (Time) and John Heileman (New York). It's quite unflattering to the now secretary of state and the former president, yet there hasn't been the sort of big response we've seen with regard to past attacks, journalistic and otherwise. That's probably because most of those high-level defenders were anonymous sources for the book, or are willing to concede the points.

Bill Clinton denied having sex with his intern.

So perhaps the endless chronic melodrama that has gripped American politics on and off for nearly two decades is ended at last and no one will be surprised by what happens in the future.

Or perhaps we already knew all this, as is the case with most of Game Change, and we look to the book for dishy details to fill in the remaining blanks of the sketches we already see in our minds.

Game Change is interesting, but there's not much in it that wasn't already known. I don't think there's anything in it that surprises with a novel twist to the historical dynamics of the 2008 presidential election. Nor does it provide any particularly fascinating explanations for why things happened as they did. It's not a strong analytical book.

What it does do is service the celebrity culture of politics, with splashy dish on leading personalities. It's not unlike a political People magazine, but designed to be read for longer than it takes to do one's business in the toilet.

While campaigning in Fayetteville, West Virginia, Bill Clinton argued with an audience member over claims made by Hillary Clinton that she improved health care during his administration.

Not that it's all accurate, either with regard to what happened or to what the reportage would lead the reader to believe would happen.

Bill Clinton, for instance, is presented in the book as a danger to his wife's career, an out of control figure who was engaged in a big-time affair and would inevitably embarrass her as presidential candidate and as secretary of state. The book has Hillary supposedly telling Barack Obama, her one-time bitter rival who brilliantly decided to make her secretary of state, that she can't control her husband and no one can.

Ah, has Bill Clinton embarrassed Secretary of State Clinton or the Obama administration? That would be, no. He's behaved quite reasonably ever since Obama became the Democratic nominee for president. He gave a great speech at the Denver convention, campaigned for Obama in key states in the general election, and cooperated with the Obama transition and the vetting of Clinton foundation and business activities. There's been nothing approaching a scandal since his wife became secretary of state.

Now, I'm not saying Bill Clinton's perfect, by any means. I met him many years ago, well before he was famous, got his phone number in Little Rock and had talks with him, and thought he was very smart and pretty cool. But as a very young Californian with limited resources, my bandwidth could only handle one rather obscure out-of-state politician, and that was Gary Hart. Over the years, as I've liked and quite frequently not liked what Clinton does, I haven't regretted the choice. I didn't support either Clinton when they first ran for president, and thought Obama was the coming figure in national politics from the spring of 2007 on.

But the view of Clinton in the book hasn't proved out in the real world. Yes, he went bonkers at times in the campaign, and was rightly criticized by many, including me. But that was to be expected. He's a natural politician, and Hillary, for all her great strengths, is not. He wanted her to do well, and was upset when she wasn't doing well, and was chafing at this whippersnapper Obama, who he doubtless resented both generationally and in the way that many stars resent one another beneath the surface camaraderie of celebrityhood.

Bill Clinton gave a lot better than he got in a confrontation on Fox News.

But once Obama won the nomination, Clinton was helpful and appropriate. As he has been since. He's been quite mellow, actually. When many reporters claimed that Clinton was re-igniting his 1992 presidential campaign rivalry with Jerry Brown -- the California attorney general and former governor who will again be the Democratic candidate for governor -- by supposedly starting a big push for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, that was simply false. Clinton was, as I reported at the time, merely making one of many fundraising stops around the country for Hillary's politician backers. (Newsom was a national co-chair of Hillary's campaign, and helped a lot with gay rights activists who didn't like Bill Clinton's policies in that area as president.)

This practice of painstakingly rewarding Clinton backers also flies in the face of one of the book's big contentions, that the Clintons ruthlessly use people and move on. Beyond the Clinton "payback tour," there's also the fact that they have quite a few longtime friends and allies.

Not that those friends and allies necessarily had the clearest point of view. I remember a conference call in 2007 with the Clintons' longtime campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe. He had laid out a long rap about why Hillary had the most powerful campaign in the history of presidential politics. But having done Iowa for Hart, it occurred to me that Barack Obama could win there. And if he won Iowa, the sky was the limit. So I asked McAuliffe what they would do if Obama took Iowa. He didn't have an answer. As we saw some months later.

Of course, at that point almost every expert thought that Hillary had it in the bag.

Hillary Clinton was on top of the world in early 2007, the certain Democratic nominee for president.

Game Change portrays Hillary Clinton as resentful and rather paranoid, convinced that the press was out to get her. Actually, the conventional press built her up throughout 2007, marginalizing her rivals.

This reached its apex with a debate in Las Vegas sponsored by CNN, at which the Clintons were allowed to pack the hall and the moderator reined in Obama and John Edwards when they attempted to start mixing it up with Hillary.

Whether she thought this was "a total hit job, day in and day out" against her, I don't know. But I doubt it.

Later on, when she started losing to Obama, I don't doubt that she resented the press.

Was she as paranoid as the book makes her out to be? According to the authors, she allowed her old friend, writer and longtime advisor Sidney Blumenthal -- whose nickname in campaign circles was "Grassy Knoll" -- to convince her to spend a great deal of time searching for the nonexistent "Whitey" tape. That's the supposed tape of Michelle Obama talking to, well, let's say that the story changed a lot.

Now I used to know Sid Blumenthal before his Clinton days and liked him. Even stayed at his house in Washington. Where once he was a rather romantic ideologist of a modernized Democratic politics, he's gotten closer to over the years to what we call the dark arts of politics.

Did Hillary really spend all that much time seeking the "Whitey" tape? Was she venting, as politicians are wont to do? I don't know. From my friends in the Clinton circle, I know that Bill Clinton is a venter.

The fact is that politicians -- like all kinds of people -- can say all kinds of things in private. They don't necessarily reflect a finished state of mind. I can't think of anyone I know that I can't make sound like a fool through selective quotation of private conversations.

Which is not to say that the Clintons don't play a very rough game. After all, they employed private detectives as far back as the 1992 campaign.

But again, we already knew that. As we already knew that Hillary's chief strategist/pollster Mark Penn went on a cable chat show and said "cocaine" as often as possible when there were unfounded rumors that Obama had been a drug dealer.

If there were a "Whitey" tape, it would have been a game changer. Well, probably it would have been. So of course Hillary, losing inexorably to Obama, would tell Sid to go get that tape.

If in fact she did.

Incidentally, if Hillary really did have a special unit set up to deal with an expected big mistress moment around her husband, she had no business running for president in the first place. Her candidacy wold not have survived that sort of firestorm, and the presidency would have been handed to John McCain and, gulp, Sarah Palin.

I think it's safe to assume that the anonymous sources talking to Halperin and Heileman gave the dishiest stuff they had, axes grinding throughout, and that the reporters picked the dishiest of the dish.

Which I suppose is one way in which we get to the book's depiction of John Edwards as an empty suit.

Former Senator John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, launched his 2008 campaign in New Orleans.

Which, as it happens, he is not. Though it is fashionable, and this book is nothing if not fashionable, to treat Edwards now as a forgettable laughingstock.

Not that I ever favored Edwards, though I liked him personally thought he was a very capable candidate. It was clear that Obama's emergence as a political superstar was forcing Edwards into the classic trap of running even further to the left to retain relevance in the primary race -- and becoming the "Netroots" favorite in the process, naturally -- which had the added effect of making him less electable in a general election than he had been before.

Now, I don't really care what people do in their private lives. And, having gone through all this with Gary Hart, who was merely one of the best-prepared potential presidents of the past century, I have a policy of not getting into that stuff. If I wanted to be a gossip columnist -- and it wouldn't be hard to do (make 10 or 20 calls a day, hang out at some parties, and write snarky little items) -- I'd be a gossip columnist.

So when I watched a video produced by Rielle Hunter for Edwards' organization, in which there was a lot of flirty energy between the candidate and his, er, documentarian, and Elizabeth Edwards was never mentioned, it was obvious that something unwise was going on. It turned out, as we've since been told, that he not only had an affair with her, risky enough, but also had a child with her.

Not unwise for an Italian film director, but definitely unwise for an American presidential candidate.

Be all that as it may, Edwards was never going to win anyway, unless the wild rumors I was hearing about Obama, which sounded like obvious bullshit, proved to be correct. Which of course they did not.

Game Change doesn't really explain why Edwards would have a child with his mistress while running for president as part of a famous marriage to a cancer victim. Which if you are into the gossipy side of all this, is the really interesting question.

Instead, the book presents Edwards as an intellectual lightweight -- ignoring the fact that he actually won most of the presidential debates with Clinton and Obama -- and Elizabeth Edwards as a shrewish Lady MacBeth type.

I suspect the reporters went for the easy, now fashionable take on Edwards, relying on embittered ex-Edwards staffers for the dish to flesh it out. Who really did, oddly, seem to think that he had a real chance of winning (and that he wasn't having a ruinous affair), and so later were very angry.

So what else do we learn in Game Change?

Well, Sarah Palin was incredibly ignorant when she was picked to be one heartbeat away from sitting in the Oval Office.

Sarah Palin shared her insights on foreign policy on CBS News.

Hey, who knew?

Not that it is not entertaining to know that she didn't get why there is a North Korea and a South Korea. Or what the deal is with World War I and World War II. Or what the Federal Reserve is. Or that she thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. All of which I think I'd already heard from Steve Schmidt, the former Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign manager who took over the McCain effort when it was bound for certain defeat and kept looking for ways to trip up Obama and trick play McCain into the White House.

Not that I hadn't realized that Palin was very glib and dangerously shallow and ignorant when I watched a few hours of video of her before her surprise selection.

One thing that was totally new is that Rick Davis, the longtime McCain honcho who was the chief advocate of Palin's selection, had formed his high opinion of her based on his viewing of her on The Charlie Rose Show. He should have watched more video on her.

Or not.

Harry Reid was forced to apologize for his private remarks.

There's another thing that really cheapens this book. And that is its treatment of Harry Reid.

After interviewing him, after the election, on a deep background basis -- which means that nothing he says will be attributed in any way to him -- the authors turn around and quote Reid saying something decidedly non-PC about Obama.

Namely, that his relatively light skin and lack of "Negro dialect," except when he wants one, made him an unusually strong African American candidate.

Which happens to be completely true. I described Obama, once I was convinced that he wasn't a one trick pony/flash in the pan, as akin to a black officer in Star Trek. And not merely because he was a Trekkie.

What Reid said is not a reflection on African Americans, it's a reflection on sometimes panicky white voters who can't get past the the surface. But it sure doesn't sound right the way he said it.

So, the authors burn the guy to create a sensation around their book.

Definitely a cheap move. With this as the cherry on top of all the other gossip they purvey, I'd say they're ready for Page Six.