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01.12.10

Politicians Gone Crazy

The real revelation in the new book Game Change: Campaigns turn our politicians into lunatics.

“You all have worked in these campaigns,” Soledad O’Brien marveled on Larry King the other night as his roundtable of pundits dished on Game Change, the smoking new book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 election fight.

“Is it as dramatic, as crazy, as chaotic? Are the candidates as flawed and bizarre, almost, as they appear in this book?”

That was nostalgia in her voice, of course. Journalists have never had more fun than when covering that marathon of viscera and blind ambition, those thrilling plot twists and backstage dramas that for 14 months caused politics to surpass any reality TV show, any cop drama that a network could kick out of its 10:00 p.m. money slot. For political junkies, campaigns are cocaine, policy is lidocaine.

By the end of Game Change, one feels that the candidates’ few happy moments are those when they “lose it.”

Why do seemingly intelligent and serious people put themselves through this vivid hell?

If they don’t start crazy, as Soledad suggests, they sure are by the end of it. Obama makes it though Game Change with his trademark cool intact. But Heilemann and Halperin give us a Republican war hero John McCain reduced to shrieking FUCK YOU! FUCK, FUCK at his wife in front of his staff. They give us a formerly self-possessed Elizabeth Edwards manically trying to convince herself that campaign aide Andrew Young, not her own husband, was the father of Rielle Hunter’s baby by ordering up a recreation of the chronology of the previous month’s itinerary so she could match which days Hunter and Edwards had been at the same venue at the same time. Hillary—careful, strategic Hillary—“bug-eyed, red-faced, waving her arms” on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport as she let rip at Obama about what she believed was the underhanded character assassination of herself and her husband for which the star-struck press never called him to account as they did her and Bill.

Speed Read: The Juiciest Details of Game ChangeThe craziness was not caused by the political race itself. It was caused by the terrifying transparency in which the modern candidate has to live. Politicians have always been required to be fake, but now the career havoc wrought by a stray, flying sound bite means they have to sustain their fakeness all the time. After six months, the real person inside the mask is screaming. Only an act of self-sabotage can restore a sense of authenticity.

For Sarah Palin, the least experienced on the world stage, the stress of maintaining the fiction that she was qualified to be vice president sent her over the deep end almost immediately. She went off on a ferocious spending spree that might have killed a lesser woman. Katie Couric’s straightforward questions unraveled her. She hid her fear in bravado. Her entire persona since—angry, defiant, victimized—was invented to repudiate the exposure of that interview.

The lie of John Edwards’s chosen pose was almost greater than Palin’s.

The “Two Americas” champion of the poor who was building a 28,000-square foot house with two theatrical stages. (One for each America?) The “devoted husband” whose marital life was a bitter power struggle with a sobbing, desperate spouse. No wonder his chosen mistress was a woman so dangerous to everything he’d striven for.

Edwards hardly even bothered to hide Hunter from his aghast campaign aides while insisting they deny her presence to the press. That Russian Roulette with his image was probably the only thing keeping him functioning.

Indeed, by the end of Game Change, one feels that the candidates’ few happy moments are those when they “lose it.” At the charged debate against Obama in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a weary, rattled Hillary, sick of being demonized by the press, stuck it to Obama with a cutting reference to “your contributor, Rezko, in his slum-landlord business in inner-city Chicago.” She immediately knew it was a mistake, that her goal in this debate was to project a more gracious, less combative Hillary. “I’m sorry, but he was such an asshole,” she tells her chagrined aides as she exits the debate. One can sense her heartfelt satisfaction.

As for Bill, well, he had worked up such a head of steam pretending to be a statesman-like consort while his wife ran for president that he went nuts when she lost Iowa and he was finally allowed off his leash.

At a town hall in Charleston, a reporter’s artful inquiry about what he thought of a former Democratic state party chairman comparing his tactics to those of the late Republican thug Lee Atwater became Bill’s god-given chance to go up in smoke. “When he put out a hit job on me at the same time he called her the senator from Punjab, I never said a word,” he told the lucky reporter, exhibiting full, magenta-faced, finger-wagging outrage as the cameras rolled.

The ensuing tirade concluded with a gratifying Clinton cannon ball: “Shame on you!” Hillary’s refusal to bawl out her husband for the incident was seen as marital dysfunction. More likely, she was thrilled. Her man had blown a gasket on her behalf. Raw feeling, not cold calculation, was at the core of Hillary’s drive. It might have been destructive but Bill was paying her attention.

Were all these outbursts crazy? Or just deeply human?

We only gave Hillary the full measure of our attention when the campaign trail reduced her to tears that day in New Hampshire.

The depth of connection the public felt for candidates after such moments of emotion is only clear now that we have the winner, a cool-cat president who never lets us see him cry.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .