Flash back to the fall of 2007. John McCain's presidential campaign looked dead, and Rudy Giuliani was preparing to roll out the all-important endorsement of popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
On Oct. 2, McCain attended a fundraiser at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee and decided to pay a visit to his old friend Crist to try to discourage him from endorsing Giuliani.
One of McCain's top Florida supporters, Kathleen Shanahan, was with him when he finished up the donor event. On the way to the statehouse, she verbally took McCain by the lapels and shook him. She was worried that if she didn't say something, McCain, being McCain, would almost certainly sit down with Crist, make small talk, tell some jokes, and waste the moment.
"Don't go over there and bull--- your way through this meeting," Shanahan said. Crist was under all sorts of pressure from Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson, and there was no telling which way he might jump. "You have to be serious; you've got to tell him why you need Florida, why you need Charlie, why you can win."
"I hear you," McCain assured her.
McCain marched into Crist's office and got down to business. He followed Shanahan's script to the letter. No one likes Rudy Giuliani more than me, McCain said, but he's not going to be the nominee of this party, and you'd be wasting your support if you endorsed him. There's no way he's going to win. You should support me. I'm going to win this nomination. My campaign is revived.
The scene comes from Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, the terrifically gossipy bestseller by veteran political reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Crist and hand-picked Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer had been actively pursuing what Crist could get in return for an endorsement, according to the book.
Those who follow politics in Florida will recall what happened — Crist stunned even McCain with a last-minute endorsement in Pinellas County that helped tip Florida's primary to McCain and essentially locked up the Republican nomination.
Game Change has been marketed and hyped so well there's a good chance you've heard some of the revelations already: Harry Reid complimenting Barack Obama's lack of "Negro dialect." Or Hillary Clinton turning down Obama's secretary of state offer, until the president-elect insisted he needed her in an emotional late-night call. Cindy McCain's alleged affair. Or Elizabeth Edwards ripping off her blouse in an airport and shouting "Look at me!" amid National Enquirer reports of John Edwards having an affair.
There's a lot to criticize in this book.
If you're fed up with Beltway political reporting focused on trivial horse race and personality coverage at the expense of critical policy analysis, Game Change will make you livid or sick or both. If you're uncomfortable with the kind of thinly sourced trust-me journalism that Bob Woodward has mastered in book after book, you will cringe.
But it's a testament to the journalistic chops and relationships of ace reporters Heilemann and Halperin that A) there's been so little push back from the many people who look awful in this book, and B) they came up with so much good new material after so many journalists have already picked apart the 2008 election.
Game Change is a page-turner with a clear moral for aspiring politicians: Be kind to your staff. Otherwise, they may wind up trashing you to the authors of the next tawdry campaign bestseller.
The once beloved Elizabeth Edwards, for instance, apparently was not always a thrill to work for. Campaign aides dish: "What the Edwards insiders saw: an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazy woman."
Nobody comes off worse than John Edwards, who finally last week admitted that, yes, he is the father of Rielle Hunter's baby. Game Change portrays him as a megolamaniac. His affair with Hunter was well-known to several of his closest aides in the 2004 campaign and was the reason they did not work for him in 2008.
As the 2008 campaign went on, some of Edwards' old guard worried he might actually win the nomination only to be destroyed when the scandal inevitably became public. They began talking about publicly exposing him to save the party, though Edwards fizzled before that became necessary.
About the only player in Game Change who comes off consistently well is Obama. That could be a function of his staff's loyalty, the fact that winners tend to have less to gripe about than losers or the authors' determination to retain their access to team Obama.
There's a strong case to be made that how a campaign is run is a good indication of how one would govern. The McCain and Clinton campaigns are portrayed as directionless and mired with infighting and turmoil.
One of the most compelling chapters focuses on how Obama and McCain handled the economic collapse in September 2007. Obama was intensely engaged and focused, while McCain was erratic and unpredictable.
At one point both candidates met at the White House with the president and congressional leaders to discuss the bailout package the administration said was crucial. McCain was largely silent, while Obama practically took charge.
"One Republican in the room mused silently, If you closed your eyes and changed everyone's voices you would have thought Obama was the president of the United States."
The sentiment appears to have been shared by most voters as they watched McCain and Obama deal with the financial meltdown in the final weeks of that epic election.
Today, that widespread confidence in Obama seems a long way off. The way things are going, it could be only a matter of time before Obama insiders start dishing dirt on his troubled presidency for the next gossipy book by Heilemann and Halperin.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]