Double Down: Game Change 2012

By Mark Halperin and John Heileman

Penguin Press

499 pages, $29.95

By Lee Coppola


“Double Down” prides itself in giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the 2012 presidential campaign. How’s this for one view:

As Clint Eastwood, unscripted and unexpected, started talking to an empty chair at the Republican convention, a Romney aide, unable to witness any longer what he considered a political catastrophe, excused himself from other aides watching the performance on television and went to the bathroom … where he vomited.

Or this:

Vice President Joe Biden once noted in referring to political give-and-take, that his boss, the president, “doesn’t even know how to swear right.”

And “Double Down” features a large dose of words seldom heard in public from the mouths of public officials and their aides, most notably a four-letter word that starts with “F.” That certainly gives the work an aspect missing from other behind-the-scene books about political maneuverings.

Another aspect different from others is the authors’ proclivity to quote participants directly without using quotation marks, kind of like telling the reader, “This was said, but I’m not exactly sure if these words were used.” And as earthly as some of the non-quotation-mark quotes were, they tended to throw doubt on what they revealed.

Authors, of course, often take literary license to make a point or describe an incident, and Halperin and Heilemann argue literary license was necessary to chronicle what went on as Mitt Romney campaigned to deny Barack Obama another four years in the White House. The authors explain their work derived from notes, memos, documented articles and books, audio recordings and more than 400 interviews, many of them done on “deep background” with the attendant grant of anonymity. “The absence of quotation marks around dialogue indicates it is paraphrased — meaning that our sources were in agreement about the nature, texture and substance of the statement, but there were minor divergences regarding precise wording.”

No matter, “Double Down” provides a fitting sequel to “Game Change”, the best-seller the authors penned to chronicle Barack Obama’s surprising march to a first-term.

As it must, “Double Down” starts before Election Day. For Romney, it was his disappointing showing when John McCain and others left him in the dust for the Republican Party nomination in 2008, and McCain selected “Sarah who” and not him as a running mate. For Barack Obama, it was figuring out how to shake off what most of his aides saw as a less than glittering first term.

Along the way, the reader gets to peek behind the headlines at what really went on during the campaign. Take the vice presidency, for instance. Rumbles that Obama was leaning toward replacing Biden with Hillary Clinton surfaced during the campaign. But “Double Down” reveals the Obama coterie staged a focus group and determined that Hillary by Obama’s side would not boost the president’s chances for re-election.

Romney, meanwhile, had his own vice-presidential conundrum, go left or right. Left was a choice he didn’t like, but might still prove beneficial to his campaign. Its name was Chris Christie. Right was a variety of choices, but Paul Ryan eventually was chosen, more to appease the right than to appeal to the moderates in the party.

The gritty writing, dotted with street-slang, acronyms and political jargon, makes “Double Down” a pleasing read in comparison with other political tomes that often take on the drudgery of an academic treatise. The authors dub former president Bill Clinton the “Maximum Canine” for his attack-dog speech at the Democratic Convention that lifted the spirits of the Obama team and injected momentum into the campaign.

“The Maximum Canine,” they write, “having shed his muzzle, was now straining at his leash. Provoked by (Romney’s aides), empowered by (the convention), Clinton was eager to hit the trail … In for a dime and a dollar, he opened fire on the GOP ticket over Medicare, providing the first nasty shot in a day that would have many – and would wind up haunting Romney right through November.”

No book about a presidential campaign would be complete without some insight into what happened after the election. In their behind-the-scenes theme, the authors report what transpired in the hours after Romney, confident of victory, learned he had lost by a significant margin.

In his hotel suite, playing on the television was a commercial about reverse mortgages being shilled by former senator and failed presidential candidate Fred Thompson. “Staring at the screen, Mitt indulged in some dark humor. “That could be me, he said.”

Lee Coppola is a former News and wire service and television reporter and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.