February 2nd, 2014

white house

February Books 1) Double Down, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

I absolutely loved the previous book by these authors, covering the 2008 US election campaign, a small part of which became the basis of the brilliant movie Game Change; this one, covering the 2012 election isn't quite as good - because it isn't as exciting a story - but still a jolly good insider account of what went on in the most recent election. There are some very good descriptive passages - the best, which is used as a hook to open the book with, is a sympathetic but clear-sighted account of how exactly Obama blew the first debate with Romney in Denver, and then how his team talked him into a frame of mind where he won the second one in New York. One senses that the authors agree with Obama's contempt for the sound-bite, news-cycle driven nature of the campaign; even though he was generally prepared to exploit it, or rather to let his team exploit it for him, he found it difficult to bring himself to care about investing in the debate.

However, the crucial difference with Romney's campaign was that Obama's advisers were able to persuade him to change his attitude and come out fighting. Romney was prone to unforced errors - the 47% got the most coverage, quite rightly, but the comments on the Benghazi attacks and his gaffes during his London visit were entirely preventable. And his advisers were clearly unable to get him to walk back any of this. The book's title, Double Down, refers to Romney's determination to stick to his guns as a right-wing candidate rather than be dubbed a flip-flopper, and his unwillingness to even try to soften the impact of his self-inflicted blows is consistent.

The most disturbing point for a foreigner is the huge role of fund-raising in the campaign. Jeb Bush, whose personal fortune is of the order of $1.3 million, said that he could not afford to run. Rick Santorum, whose politics are of course completely repulsive, actually evokes some sympathy when a lack of financial resources makes him completely unable to capitalise on his early successes. Romney refuses to bankroll his own campaign, having, he felt, spent enough on it in 2008, and consequently nearly runs out of money. Obama hates fund-raising almost as much as debating, and in the end the team more or less give up on him and start using Michelle instead. America, where anyone can be President, as long as they are richer than Jeb Bush.

There are some nice vignettes. Paul Ryan, settling down for the Republican convention in Florida, is unwillingly hooked by a showing of Game Change which he comes across while channel-hopping. A senior Republican campaign official is so appalled by Clint Eastwood's speech that he is physically sick. But more cheerfully, a carefully timed plan to reveal Obama's support of gay marriage is thrown into complete disarray when Vice-President Biden, quite spontaneously, makes the same political call; and despite the botch of the announcement, there is absolutely no blowback. The times, they are a-changin'.

February Books 2) Crowe's Requiem, by Mike McCormack

A short fantasy novel, which has been on my list of sf and fantasy set in Ireland for a while. Crowe is drawn partly from Oskar in Die Blechtrommel, in that he has a biologically unusual childhood and adolescence, and then like Stephen Dedalus he heads off to university in Dublin. Though in fact his experience is closer to that of the unnamed protagonist of At Swim-Two-Birds, with some turns of phrase particulalry in the first half of the book sounding very Flann O'Brien-ish. Crowe goes through sinister medical experiences and emotional trauma with his lover, and does not get a happy ending; and we wonder a little how reliable a narrator he has been. I felt a little let down by the ending, but most of the book was very good, and I am surprised not to have heard more about it.