I don’t care how much fun it was to read the harrowing tales of various Sarah Palin meltdowns in Mark Halperin’s Game Change, there’s just something intellectually violent about Halperin basically owning the printed record of the 2008 election and subsequently turning it into a successful HBO movie, thus congealing his wrongness as actual history.
Mark Halperin, arguably the most cartoonish and inaccurate hack in political reporting, somehow called dibs on one of the most consequential and historic elections in modern history. Together with co-author John Heilemann, who also has occasionally though far less frequently lapses into the realm of cartoonishhackery, Halperin’s book has become the go-to volume about the 2008 election despite having no index and very little by way of, you know, sources.
The book went on to sell a gazillion copies and the HBO film, featuring Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin won the Emmy for best made-for-TV movie. What can I say? People love political dirt, especially when it’s loaded with lame sports-metaphors and juicy TMZ style gossip mongering. And since as an added bonus it featured the aforementioned stories about Palin flipping her shpadoinkle, it flew off the shelves — as did everything Palin-related that year.
So naturally, Halperin and Heilemann just announced they’ll be writing Game Change 2: Electric Boogaloo. I’m kidding, of course. The real title is much, much worse. It’s called Double Down: Game Change 2012. No I’m not kidding. Yes, it has “double down” in there: easily the most over-used political phrase of the last several years and among my personal most hated — a list that includes “some are saying,” “teachable moment,” and “enhanced interrogation.” Not only is it a gambling term, but it’s also the name of that god-awful sandwich that uses fried chicken as a bun. So it makes perfect sense that Halperin is horking it as the title of his book. They’re both a shit sandwich that’s bad for you.
Halperin and Heilemann are reportedly being paid $5.3 million to write it.
There’s a tendency to say Halperin fails up. But as an entrepreneur, that’s not entirely true. Game Change did quite well in spite of Halperin’s lengthy roster of flaws, though he wouldn’t be the first hack in the business who stood upon the shoulders of great agents and publicists and believed all of their sycophantic kudos as the gospel truth. However, in terms of being a journalist (or proto-journalist) and achieving $5.3 million paychecks to write his flaccid crapola, it’s true: he’s a classic example of failing up. He’s generally wrong about everything and I don’t know anyone who goes around quoting him favorably as a source or praising his salient insights, chiefly because he’s never said anything remotely close to being insightful or salient. It simply never happens. When he was suspended from MSNBC for calling the President of the United States a “dick” on Morning Joe, I couldn’t help but to wonder why he’s never been suspended for simply being wrong all the time. (Note to future pundits: saying “dick” will get you suspended, being wrong all the time will get you $5.3 million book contracts.) And that’s mainly because Halperin is inexplicably well-liked among the DC news media, he’s ubiquitous in cable news green rooms, and he’s one of the guys who’s considered Very Serious. Always wrong, but Very Serious, so the wrongness is irrelevant.
And that’s the danger in allowing Halperin to ascend as the primary narrator of recent political history. He’s attained the privilege of drafting the version of history that tends to overrule other contemporanous accounts of what happened and forms the basis for what future historians will say about our times.
For example, instead of remembering Elizabeth Edwards as a courageous woman who endured both terminal cancer and a soulless husband, anyone who read Game Change will remember her as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazy-woman,” per Halperin’s unsourced reporting in the book. And Halperin will never mention that he helped to mainstream Birtherism when he recommended that John McCain exploit Barack Obama’s “exotic” name to paint him as an Islamic Manchurian Candidate. That’s part of history that will never be repeated in mainstream circles. Instead, we’re getting the tall tale version, passed off as legitimate without any regard for the text book rules of journalism many of us learned working on our high school newspapers.
If you sprinkle dashes of juicy, gossipy details (again, no sources) into a volume that otherwise contains typically lame and obvious examples of Halperin’s fart-sized observations (stop the presses — McCain was a “maverick,” according to Halperin/Heilemann), you provide an opiate for the masses that helps the history go down more smoothly. It’s the digestible super-market tabloid version of history delivered by two guys who wormed their way into the DC news media inner-circle by sheer tenacity and mutual hatred of the rest of us out here in the digital wild west of independent political reporting. Halperin therefore enjoys unearned respect as a journalist, and he’s exploiting every bit of it. The upshot is an insult to history: high profile reporting delivered by a man who’s totally unqualified to accurately convey it.
And he gets to do it all over again. Worse, HBO has optioned Double Down (barf) for yet another movie-of-the-week, and so America gets a second ride along the Mobius Circle of Halperin mythology.