Why political scientists should hate Game Change

Last month, both on this blog and on my Twitter feed, I defended the notion that political scientists would be uber-interested in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change:  Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.  I was generally sympathetic to Jack Shafer’s defense of their sourcing methods in Slate.  ...

Last month, both on this blog and on my Twitter feed, I defended the notion that political scientists would be uber-interested in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change:  Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.  I was generally sympathetic to Jack Shafer's defense of their sourcing methods in Slate.  And, in that spirit, I ordered Game Change, ready to dig deep into campaign gossip and the flawed nature of politicians. 

Well, I've finished the book -- as well as the 20-minute shower I needed to take after reading the book.  And I hereby retract any and all enthusiasm for Game Change-- because I don't know which parts of it are true and which parts are not. 

[Um... does anyone care anymore?--ed.  This is the #10 #15 book on Amazon's bestseller list, so I'm going to say yes.]

Last month, both on this blog and on my Twitter feed, I defended the notion that political scientists would be uber-interested in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change:  Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.  I was generally sympathetic to Jack Shafer’s defense of their sourcing methods in Slate.  And, in that spirit, I ordered Game Change, ready to dig deep into campaign gossip and the flawed nature of politicians. 

Well, I’ve finished the book — as well as the 20-minute shower I needed to take after reading the book.  And I hereby retract any and all enthusiasm for Game Change— because I don’t know which parts of it are true and which parts are not. 

[Um… does anyone care anymore?–ed.  This is the #10 #15 book on Amazon’s bestseller list, so I’m going to say yes.]

My problem is not, exactly, with the sourcing — it’s with the gullibility of Heilemann and Halperin when dealing with their sources.  So, just to be clear, the political scientist in me doesn’t loathe this book because of the narrative structure — it’s because I don’t trust Heilemann and Halperin’s BS detector. 

It was on page 89 that I began to wonder just how much Game Change’s authors double-checked their sources.  This section of the book recounts entertainment mogul David Geffen’s "break" with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — most publicly, in this Maureen Dowd column

And so, we get to this paragraph in Game Change:

The reaction to the column stunned Geffen.  Beseiged by interview requests, he put out a statement saying Dowd had quoted him accurately.  Some of Geffen’s friends in Hollywood expressed disbelief.  Warren Beatty told him, She’s going to be president of the United States–you must be nuts to have done this.  But many more congratulated Geffen for having the courage to say what everyone else was thinking but was too afraid to put on the record.  They said he’d made them feel safer openly supporting or donating to Obama.  Soon after, when Geffen visited New York, people in cars on Madison Avenue beeped their horns and gave him the thumbs-up as he walked down the street (emphasis added). 

I’m calling bulls**t on the bolded sentence.  David Geffen is a powerful mogul, but he’s not a photogenic celebrity in his own right.  I’m pretty confident in asserting that no one driving down Madison Avenue would recognize Geffen walking down the street.  I have complete confidence that no more than one person did this. 

Furthermore, even if there was a small chance that someone did recognize Geffen on the street, how would a honking horn indicate sympathy with Geffen’s political inclinations as opposed to, say, a sentiment more like, "Yo, David, will you listen to my demo?!" 

So, who is the "deep background" source of this little anecdote for Game Change?  It has to be Geffen — he is, after all, so vain.  And so we arrive at the first key question:  what does it say about the veracity of Game Change that Geffen related a completely implausible, ego-boosting story about himself to Heilemann and Halperin and it gets printed in the book? 

This leads to the second key question:  what other "telling anecdotes" of dubious provenance got put into this book?  The Geffen anecdote is has zero impact on the juicy stories told in the rest of the book — but how can I be certain that Heilemann and Halperin vetted those sources with greater scrutiny? 

I don’t doubt that most of Game Change is accurate — and I couldn’t put the book down as I was reading it.  I just don’t trust what I read.   

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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