This isn’t a review because I haven’t read “Double Down” — the new book about the 2012 campaign — nor do I plan to. You shouldn’t either. Let me explain why.
After every political campaign, many people are upset. They feel like they were ignored or slighted or disrespected by someone else on the campaign team. In losing campaigns, it’s even worse, because people are also worried that they will get blamed for whatever went wrong. In short, there are a whole bunch of people looking to settle scores or protect their reputation.
The authors of “Double Down” — Mark Halperin and John Heilemann — have found a way to exploit this phenomena for fun and profit. They seek out disaffected campaign staffers and consultants and provide an anonymous conduit for them to spin their preferred version of what transpired. This creates a prisoner’s dilemma for those who might not ordinarily be inclined to speak to Halperin and Heilemann. If they don’t cooperate, their critics might be the only people who shape the narrative of the campaign. By playing different factions within campaigns against it each other, Heilemann and Halperin get a lot of folks to talk. Interviews are conducted on “deep background” and the books contain “no source notes.”
This has been an extremely lucrative exercise for the authors. Their first book on the 2008 campaign, “Game Change,” was a bestseller and optioned into an HBO movie. Halperin and Heilemann received an advance for “Double Down” that exceeded $5 million.
But the experience has been less enriching for readers looking to get an accurate view of the campaign. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of largely unverifiable gossip — a noxious soup of the true, the exaggerated and the false:
Bob Steele, a journalism ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, said that one of the pitfalls in this type of book is that “both accuracy and fairness can be in jeopardy when anonymous sources are overused and misused.” Also, those who supplied such insider information, Steele noted, “cannot be held easily accountable.”
In Game Change Halperin and Heilemann write that it was “nearly the universal assessment” among Edwards staff that Elizabeth Edwards was “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” We don’t know who told this to the authors or exactly what they base their assessment on. I haven’t done any reporting on the matter, but the handful of 2008 Edwards staffers I know seemed to adore Elizabeth. The passage was later quoted approvingly by Reille Hunter, Edwards’ mistress. What is the value, other than selling books, of passing on anonymous vitriol about a woman who, at the time, was dying of cancer?
According to news reports, the new book allows anonymous Romney aides to make a series of damaging suggestions about Chris Christie’s background, even though all these claims are vague and unsubstantiated. Christie, much to the chagrin of Team Romney, had positive things to say about Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy in the days leading up to Election 2012. Now, Romney’s staff is getting an opportunity for payback. But what are readers getting?
Nevertheless, each salacious nugget is breathlessly reported by large media outlets who, it seems, can’t resist. A Google News search for the book already returns 848 results, before this piece added one more. This creates buzz, more sales and more buzz. Full of tidbits of dubious import, “Double Down” seems destined for the bestseller list as well. But if you are interested in an accurate understanding of the 2012 campaign, you might be better off looking elsewhere.