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The Pivotal, Behind-the-Scenes Story of How the "Game Change" Guys Get Sources to Talk

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Looking back, the interview on January 30, 2009 would prove to be a game-changer for Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The authors were reporting their book Game Change, which would, upon its release the following year, spend seven weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list, turn the duo into journalistic celebrities, and beget the sure-to-sell follow-up, Double Down, which came out earlier this week. They’d already collected plenty of dirt, but were digging for more. So they went up to Capitol Hill to interview Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

Jim Manley, at the time Reid’s senior communications advisor, rarely approved such interviews, in part because his prickly boss disliked them. But Manley had been hearing things. During the run-up to the primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Reid had stayed publicly, strenuously neutral. Now someone in the Obama White House had told Halperin that all the way back in the summer of 2006, Reid had quietly encouraged then-Sen. Obama to run for president. Manley wanted Reid to hear the rumor for himself and give his own version of events. The session would be on deep-background—reporter-speak for a conversation from which the general substance is fair game, but no quotes or information may be attributed to the source. After it was over, Manley says, he followed Heilemann and Halperin outside Reid’s office and received their reassurance that they wouldn’t quote Reid.

Which is why Manley was not pleased when Game Change included this passage on Reid’s encouragement of Obama’s run: 

[Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he later put it privately.

If Manley is to be believed—and most people I spoke to believe him—the inflammatory comments were not something that Reid “later put … privately” so much as said in the original, deep-background interview that Heilemann and Halperin decided to go ahead and use. When the quote leaked the weekend before Game Change was released, Reid found himself on the business end of several punishing news cycles (several prominent Republicans actually called on him to resign). The quote also ensured that Game Change became an immediate sensation—Reid’s comments were the prime drivers of early conversation surrounding the book, which would go on to sell nearly half a million copies just in hardcover.

Amid the chaos, Manley considered making a stink about the betrayal, but backed down when Halperin told him that should Reid’s office openly challenge the writers’ conduct, “we will feel burned,” adding, in an email that cc-ed Heilemann, “We won’t take any steps without informing you, but we will take steps.” “Steps,” according to Manley, meant releasing the rest of Reid’s candid conversation about the Clintons and the Obamas.

There is a world in which what happened to Manley and Reid would serve as a cautionary tale to the staffers, operatives, and elected officials that feed Halperin and Heilemann their scoops. Indeed, one Congressional reporter tells me the incident caused Hill sources to freeze up as skittishness set in following Reid’s quote. You might think, too, that the focus and nature of Halperin and Heilemann’s projects would be its own disincentive to cooperate: Game Change, after all, made it clear that the authors consider everything—every private marital conversation, every petty squabble, every venal freak-out, every off-color remark, every otherwise forgotten scandal—in-bounds. (Game Change is the book that disclosed an episode in which Elizabeth Edwards, stricken with breast cancer, tore off her blouse and screamed, to her presidential-candidate, cheating husband, “Look at me!”)

But that is not Halperin and Heilemann’s world. Their world is what they, in their trademark prosody, might call Campaignland. It’s a different, weird place. And Double Down is evidence that even after the first go-round, they continue to be able to exploit its alternate rules with aplomb.

When Halperin and Heilemann first peddled Game Change to publishers in 2008, they were proposing to zig where others had zagged. With the half-life of political news shrinking ever more, they banked on a leisurely publication schedule and a pre-digital format. With the Nate Silvers of the world making the case, with increasing volume and persuasiveness, that election outcomes can be coolly predicted in advance and are decided by less-than-scintillating factors like economic fundamentals and turnout strategies, they would celebrate blunt tactical moves and ostensible gut instinct, perhaps best summarized by their attributing to Bill Clinton “trademark Houdini juju.”  Most importantly, they would home in on campaign decisions—many of them of de minimis consequence—and the dramas and outsize personalities that fill the time between.

“There was this conventional wisdom that you couldn’t do campaign books anymore,” Heilemann tells me. “We felt that there were these fundamental questions that even in this over-covered environment—or perhaps because the metabolism of the media was so sped up, everyone would focus on things for a very brief time and then move on—that if we could answer them, and write about things in a very close-to-the-bone way, really capturing the high human drama, what it was like for the candidates and their spouses, that there would be a market for that.” To execute that approach, Heilemann and Halperin had to get hundreds of smart, successful, generally prudent adults to tell them things they’re not supposed to. “We went into this with humility,” says Halperin. “It wasn’t a sure thing.”

Except: It sort of was. Because the thing about campaign people is that as much as they care about winning and profess loyalty to their candidates, they are also committed to maintaining their own exalted statuses; or, failing that, to covering their own asses. Campaigns themselves may be tightly scripted productions, machines built to spit out approved narratives. But the people who work on political races leak more than a Chinatown grocery bag. (It is almost impossible to write about Halperin and Heilemann without finding yourself writing like Halperin and Heilemann.)

It helps that the interviews are for publication after Election Day. It helps, too, that the authors pointedly do not ask sources to speak for attribution. (Not because nobody would: Republican strategist Ed Rogers, quoted in Double Down as a Haley Barbour confidante, told me, “I was definitely on the record. If he [used my name] I’d have no problem with that.”) Politicos also see in them kindred spirits. “This is someone who really understands,” one operative told me.

And once a critical mass of conversations is reached, a kind of network effect kicks in, with every additional source begetting the participation of other sources suddenly concerned about their version getting left out. Meanwhile, Halperin and Heilemann are scrupulous about not letting anyone know who else is squealing. “They keep it like a VP selection,” says Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, who says he spoke to them. To this day, for instance, the authors have never acknowledged interviewing Reid. (“I will say—as long as you make it clear, please, that I’m not referring to any interview we might or might not have done—that we would never threaten anybody we interviewed,” Halperin insists.) 

Not everyone who shares his or her story does so with what you might call full consent. “They tell you that everybody’s talking, and if you don’t talk, you’re the one person who’s not talking,” says a 2008 operative who describes Halperin and Heileman’s technique as “a kind of emotional terrorism.” But most of the authors’ very well-placed sources seem perfectly happy, if not eager, to spill the beans.

Bob Woodward, another journalist who writes scoop-filled books, has been called a “stenographer to power” for the way he passes along his subjects’ claims without verification or context. For the Washington elites who populate their books, Heilemann and Halperin play a different role. Sitting down with the pair “to share the stories, to share the shit you can’t believe really happened,” has become a post-election ablution ritual for weary minds and fragile egos, according to another 2008 operative. (Did this person talk? “I know both of those guys pretty well, yeah.”) The sources need the writers as much as the other way around. Says the operative: “It’s become a form of therapy for campaign workers.” 

Game Change the book became Game Change, the HBO movie. And Double Down the book was already optioned by HBO (Thomas Haden Church is the authors’ suggestion for the weathered, handsome operative Stuart Stevens, in case you were wondering). But initially, Halperin and Heilemann considered skipping the laborious book-writing step and trying to sell a screenplay on the 2008 campaign straight to Hollywood.

The inspiration struck them one afternoon that April. Obama, a historic candidate in so many ways, had all but secured his improbable upset over Clinton, in the process sending her ex-president husband into several entertaining meltdowns. The Edwards campaign had imploded nearly as spectacularly. John McCain, redeemed from his defeat eight years earlier, had sewn up the Republican nomination. (They didn’t even know that the Campaign Gods would deliver their most rewarding gift several months later in the form of Sarah Palin.) That day, the Arizona senator was holding a big rally in Annapolis, Maryland, which both writers were attending, Heilemann as a political correspondent for New York, Halperin as part of the campaign coverage team for Time. Expecting to find “30,000 screaming Midshipmen, McCainiacs going crazy,” as Heilemann puts it, they instead watched McCain deliver a garbled speech—the teleprompter had eaten a page of the prepared remarks, without McCain seeming to notice—to a nearly empty football stadium on an unseasonably cold day.

Heilemann and Halperin drove back to Washington together. “Someone should make a movie about this campaign,” said Heilemann. “It's the most incredible thing ever.” They kicked around the idea. “One of us said, ‘Do you have any experience with script-writing?’”

“No, I've never done that before.”

“Maybe a roman à clef, a Primary Colors.”

But neither had experience writing fiction, either. As they rolled into Washington—Heilemann, with his flair for scene-setting, recalls the exact spot, “about a block and a half from the Capitol, by the C-Span studios”—they finally settled on producing a non-fiction recreation of “the campaign of a lifetime,” as their subtitle would eventually declare it: A deeply reported but unabashedly sensationalized account of the 2008 race. It was a plan perfectly suited to their combined skills.

The son of a foreign policy wise man, Halperin grew up in the D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, and came of age journalistically as an ABC News off-air reporter embedded with then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992. (He was the first journalist to directly ask Clinton about Gennifer Flowers.) After spending the next decade amassing contacts and cultivating an impeccably insidery point of view, in 2002 Halperin unleashed The Note, a digital digest posted, and devoured, by 11:00 a.m. every weekday on ABC News’ site. Written in an obfuscatory code addressed to his fellow members of the chattering class—“the Gang of 500” was his preferred term—it could drive a news cycle with a single sentence. During the 2004 election, The New Yorker called it “the most influential tip sheet in Washington.” A former Obama aide, swapping adjectives, describes it to me as “the original transactional D.C. tip sheet,” a forum “where leaks are rewarded with flattery.” The Note made Halperin one of the most connected people in Washington, even as he made his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

By the 2008 cycle, Halperin had gone from ABC News to Time and from The Note to The Page, a blog on the magazine’s website. Even four years earlier, the job of manning a political intel hub was taking a toll. (“In order to avoid missing a single moment of the news cycle, he has forsaken much that he used to enjoy,” reported The New Yorker. “Halperin admits that his singular fixation sometimes gives him a feeling of ‘psychological oppression.’”) And he now faced stiff competition in the influential/transactional tip-sheet business from Playbook, the Politico morning newsletter authored by Mike Allen—whose metabolism is legendarily inhuman and who lives in Rosslyn, Virginia, in order to be closer to work. But Halperin remained a player, someone to whom campaign workers turned to swap information at the beginning and the end of the day. Game Change gave Halperin a platform for his reporting as well as eventual respites from what the book dubs, with obvious distaste, “hourly blogofying.” This year, The Page has lain dormant since March, with Halperin on book leave.

It is no knock on Halperin to say he is a better information broker than prose stylist. And it is similarly no knock on Heilemann to say that his main skill is as a magazine writer, able to synthesize streams of information into a taut narrative. Where Halperin can be almost courtly, Heilemann plays the playful rogue, sporting natty blazers and, according to a source familiar with his work at New York, habitually cranking out magazine pieces while in transit, the deadline obliterated, the copy—when it finally comes in—clean and annotated for the fact-checkers. He broke into journalism as an eager intern at The Washington Monthly (“the unusual thing about John was that he produced an article as an intern, and that’s relatively rare,” remembers former editor-in-chief Charlie Peters) then helped cover the 1996 campaign for The New Yorker.

In 2000, during what most people not named John Heilemann considered the early days of political journalism on the Internet, Heilemann was dismissing online political coverage as passé: “The Web doesn't feel avant-garde any more,” he complained to The New York Times. “We went from the year when it was off the charts to the year when it was mainstream.” He switched to writing about tech and did a book on Microsoft before finding his way back to his old beat. Heilemann is a creature of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but as a writer, campaigns seem his native terrain. Heilemann’s Twitter avatar is a caricature of Hunter S. Thompson; both Game Change and Double Down have chapter titles that play on Thompson’s famous “Fear and Loathing” phrase. The books let him go full gonzo.

“I can say that it is a fact that Mark Halperin consumes less Diet Coke now than he did in his days doing The Note,” says Heilemann. You can’t find anyone who suggests that the two don’t work hard. But it is good work if you can get it. The books allow the pair to conduct more of their business around the hotel bar, as they follow their sources, and the big action, on the trail (“you know you’re moving up in the polls when Mark Halperin shows up,” says Hogan Gidley, late of the Rick Santorum campaign). The acknowledgements section of Double Down thanks 20 brand-name chefs and restaurateurs—Mario Batali, Wylie Dufresne, Danny Meyer—who “attended magnificently to our corporeal sustenance.”

Whether their interviews happen over drinks, dinner, or a conference room table, they follow an informal rubric. “This is no Einstein method,” Heilemann avers. For their initial conversations, the writers claim to try not to go in with a particular agenda; instead, these sessions are about “sitting with people in a kind of oral history fashion, and saying, ‘Talk to us about your experience.’” (The language of therapy creeps in again.) As plotlines emerge, they schedule follow-ups with the most important sources—for Double Down, they note, they spoke to more than 400 people over more than 500 “full-length” interviews—many of which they cram in during a frantic post-election sprint, “while memories are still fresh.” In one operative’s experience, Halperin did most of the talking, while Heilemann sat tapping away on his laptop, a loose variation on good-cop, bad-cop.

For the interviewee, things can get intense. “They tell you how a bunch of events that you lived, and they didn’t, happened,” says a former Obama operative, “and you either get to agree or disagree, based on their account from someone else.” The aide calls it the “Woodward technique: seven sources on background saying you’re an asshole.” Adds a onetime McCain staffer of his own debriefing: “It was as close to being in a deposition as you could possibly be.”  

The upside, for the more fortunate sources, is that they will be cast in the books as heroes of white-knuckle adventures. Kevin Sheekey has “mojo.” Karl Rove has all the answers: “Of course he did—he was Rove.” Lis Smith, recently seen on the losing end of New York City’s comptroller primary, is Obama’s “rapid-response queen.” In Game Change and particularly Double Down, nearly as important as the inner lives of the “principals” are the grand decisions made by this elite caste of operatives. It is notable that, since Double Down’s scoops began to drop a week ago, the most prominent protestor has been New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Other than that principal principal, there has been little if any public grousing.

A skeptical reading of Heilemann’s and Halperin’s success is that they were lucky to have had such rich material, in the form of one of the most compelling elections ever, their first time out. When they were shopping the initial Game Change proposal to publishers, according to a source from a rival house, they turned down a two-book offer in order to take a reported sub-$1 million advance from HarperCollins, betting on themselves to produce a blockbuster that would strengthen their negotiating position next time. The gamble paid off: They sold the follow-up—aggressively, within two months of Game Change’s publication—to Penguin for an advance that reportedly exceeded $5 million. “I was among those who was a little bit skeptical of Halperin and Heilemann garnering the kind of advance they did for their second book, given that unlike the rich characters of 2008, 2012 focused on the incumbent and Mitt Romney,” says the political journalist Robert Draper, who counts the pair as friends (and who sometimes writes for The New Republic). He adds, “I hardly blame them for taking the money.” His implicit underlying assessment, though, was the prevailing one: Double Down would be a dud.

But the assumption that the lower-drama, even maybe lower-stakes 2012 election would make for a less engaging book turns out to be misguided. Is Double Down as entertaining as Game Change? Yes—it is exactly as entertaining. Is it as shallow? Yes—it is exactly as shallow. In the manner of the successful sequel, Halperin and Heilemann have replicated their techniques with a different plot and a modified cast to produce a similarly satisfying result.

This, then, is Halperin and Heilemann’s own trademark Houdini juju. Because their foremost stories remain the “high human drama” and the political genius of the 20 or so Olympian operatives at the tops of the campaigns, there is only so much of an extent to which the story they tell about the 2008 election could diverge when the topic is the 2012 election. And for reliable, structural, even psychological reasons, there is no reason to expect they won’t be able to do it a third time. After all, the denizens of Campaignland will have more stories to unload. “Our first and most titanic IOU,” the pair writes in Double Down’s acknowledgements, “is to our sources.”