"Ready for dinner"
In his latest article for the Daily Beast, former chief Romney 2012 adviser Stuart Stevens weighs in on two books about the 2012 election — the gossipy “Double Down,” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and the wonky “The Gamble,” by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. Stevens praises both books, which he claims work well together as complementary pieces, but quibbles with the former’s telling of at least one key 2012 moment.
That moment is the infamous performance by Clint Eastwood during the Republican National Convention, during which Eastwood free-associated a meandering and frequently bizarre conversation with an empty chair that was supposed to represent President Obama. “Double Down” reports that the disastrous performance led Stevens to vomit in dismay; but Stevens writes, “My recounting to colleagues that the Eastwood moment made me sick gets taken a bit literally,” implying he did no such thing. (Ultimately, however, Stevens says this is not “really important,” because “Double Down” gets to the emotional essence of what it’s like to work on a presidential campaign.)
Of the wonky, political science-bound “The Gamble,” Stevens has nothing to say but praise, calling the book, “data-driven” and written by “very smart and skilled professionals working through data and presenting an overwhelmingly compelling case.” Yet Stevens says reading the book had him “pulled in two directions.” While it’s enlightening to have the numbers-based case for why the election turned out the way it did presented so cogently, Stevens says, it’s disheartening for the Romney 2012 veteran to read how much of his time and effort was ultimately for naught. Stevens calls this feeling a “maddening sense of frustration that so much blood, sweat, tears, and treasure was put into an endeavor that was likely predetermined by forces out of anyone’s control.”
Double Down’s approach focuses on every drop and every dollar of the campaign’s blood, sweat, tears, and treasure. While there are some depictions of moments that don’t exactly jive with my recollection, I give the authors a great deal of credit for working hard to get everything right. Halperin and Heilemann take their task very seriously and are truly exhaustive in their research efforts.
My greatest issues revolve around the use of quotes when a second party is recounting what another person said. Or even quotes based on an individual’s direct memory. Unless working from recordings or very precise notes, it’s impossible to get exactly right what a person said. There are instances of characters saying things in the book that just don’t strike me as right. But that said, the authors use far less quotes than many contemporary histories and I know from personal experience, they go to great lengths to get a line as right as possible.
In many ways, Double Down is an oral history of the campaign in that it is based more on interviews than on primary-source materials. Halperin and Heilemann don’t have the advantages of working with the computers, diaries, and email records that fill presidential libraries. They are relying on memories and stories, some buttressed by notes, and there’s the inevitable tendency for the 1-pound fish that was caught to end up a tad larger when told over beers.
Elias Isquith is a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith.More Elias Isquith.