In 2010, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann released their book Game Change, which told the behind-the-scenes story of all of the campaigns in the 2008 presidential election. The book was extraordinarily well-received, inspiring an award-winning HBO movie and setting a new standard for presidential campaign books.
Now, four years later, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann once again masterfully weave journalism, history, and narrative into a single masterpiece: Double Down: Game Change 2012. The 2012 election is still fresh in everyone’s minds: We lived it, remember it well, and still feel all of the consequences of the immediate aftermath. But Halperin and Heilemann capture a degree of insight that even the most well-informed of historians would envy.
It begins by presenting Obama’s first term from his own administration’s perspective, showing an often frustrated and battered president at times starkly different from the cool and calm Obama of 2008. The book then transitions into the Republican nomination fight, rapidly switching perspectives between various different Republicans, recreating the circus-like feeling of the primaries and showing candidate after candidate who perhaps could have been president if not for some fatal flaw. And finally, the book explores the general election, an intense and bitter fight that ultimately led to what would be much more accurately described as Mitt Romney’s defeat than Barack Obama’s victory.
Virtually any person willing to read a book on the subject would already know the basic story of the 2012 election. But what makes this book so intriguing is not the big picture story, but the little details that the general public was oblivious to, even as they changed history in front of our faces. How seemingly irrelevant things such as The Celebrity Apprentice, Fox News’ lawyers, Rick Perry’s back, and Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney’s Mormon connections all dramatically impacted the dynamics of the Republican primary. Or how Barack Obama was so horrendous in debate-prep the night before his second debate against Romney that his advisors were legitimately afraid that they might lose. Halperin and and Heilemann explore the things don’t make headlines as they’re happening, but that are far more important to history than the things that actually do.
Given the unparalleled amount of detail Halperin and Heilemann explore, questions have naturally been raised about both the accuracy of their information and the means by which they acquired it, particularly because the book’s research consisted of interviews conducted entirely on deep background, meaning none of their sources are cited. When the book was first released, some of its claims were disputed, most notably accusations that Christie was not chosen as Romney’s vice president due to concerns raised about various minor scandals while he was being vetted. Christie called the accusations part of a Washington “parlor game” and claimed that the reports in the book had nothing to do with his record in New Jersey. In contrast, Halperin told the HPR that the media coverage of the Christie incidents was “underdone”. The validity or lack thereof of these claims was never resolved, but in light of the scandals that have since followed Christie (both of which occurred after he was vetted for VP), these accusations seem rather tame.
When asked about ensuring total accuracy in the novel while still creating a captivating narrative, Halperin told the HPR, “We would never make up any facts or lie or combine anything. We would never take any creative license… our reputations are more important than anything else, so we would never even consider anything like that.” Heilemann concurred, saying, “[We have] 500 interviews with 400 people, 30,000 pages of transcripts. We could write 2,000 pages of entirely factual material.”
It is also worth noting that, even though the book is more than 500 pages long, relatively few people disputed any of its claims. Double Down contains countless pieces of information about the campaigns that had never previously been reported, many of which portray prominent individuals in a less than positive light. One would think that if the book were littered with inaccuracies, there would have been far more of an outcry about it. It should not be treated as gospel, but it seems safe to assume that the majority of the book is more or less factual.
The Ethics Question
But there are still legitimate questions about how this information was acquired. A recent New Republic article tore into Halperin and Heilemann’s methods, citing an example where they allegedly violated their deep background rules with a Harry Reid quote, and saying that various individuals had compared the interviews to a deposition, with some going so far as to claim that the authors blackmailed their interviewees.
When the HPR asked Halperin and Heilemann about this specific incident, their answer was much less revealing, with Halperin saying, “We clearly explained the rules before each interview” and that, as part of these rules, “We never can acknowledge speaking to anyone.” While this is consistent with their rules, it is hardly an answer to the questions the article poses.
But in regard to the general tone of all of their interviews, Halperin and Heilemann strongly defended their methods, with Heilemann saying, “We do what all reporters do. We talk to people about what happened. … People generally want to tell their stories. … It’s the most intense professional experience many of them have ever had. … They all think they’re part of history … the idea of having what they took part in being represented accurately on the page with context and nuance is important to them.” Heilemann very clearly took issue with the notion that they had done anything unethical, going so far as to say, “Even if [our interviews were like depositions], would that even be an issue of ethical grayness? … But we view them as oral histories, not as depositions.”
It is impossible to know for certain what happened in all of these deep background interviews. But at worst, Halperin and Heilemann unethically acquired information that they then made public. At best, Halperin and Heilemann wrote a phenomenal piece of art and reporting, and a veritable model for future campaign books. The truth is likely somewhere in between. With this in mind, Double Down should be treated as what we know it is: A deeply revealing and wildly entertaining look behind the scenes of the 2012 presidential election.
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