by Meredith O'Brien
“Nothing you’ve experienced has prepared you for this, how ugly it can be.” -- McCain aide to GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin about presidential campaigns.
The new, buzzy book that has captured the attention of politics and news junkies -- Game Change , an expose about the 2008 presidential race written by two journalists who used unnamed sources – seemed like a must-read. As I listened to pundits chew on its details over the past week, I wanted to read it in order to look inside the heads of national campaign managers. I didn’t like what I found.
Even before I got my hands on a copy, I read an excerpt in New York Magazine  on John and Elizabeth Edwards. Accompanying the excerpt were six cartoons depicting the major players in the Edwards drama: John and Elizabeth Edwards and John’s mistress Rielle Hunter. John was satirized in one as angrily yelling at a staffer and in another picture he was breaking into a sweat while reading a tabloid story about his affair. The ones featuring Hunter showed her looking smitten and overtly flirtatious. As for Elizabeth, she got the worst of it. In one cartoon she was standing outside an airport after she’d ripped open her blouse and yelled, “Look at me!” In the other drawing, Elizabeth resembled an unhinged monster, fingers curled up like claws while she bellowed into a phone that stories about John’s affair were killing her. Given that it was John’s behavior which helped make him a political pariah, the tone of these cartoons surprised me.
Then I actually read Game Change. And damn did it tick me off. Women, by and large, came off abysmally. The men – Edwards, Barack Obama, John McCain, Bill Clinton Joe Biden and Rudy Giuliani – were portrayed as feisty, profane, inspiring, cocky, narcissistic, messianic, shallow, phony and occasionally ill-tempered, although when their anger was discussed it seemed to be of a variety that didn’t warrant a bunch of florid, patronizing adjectives, as if such behavior is the norm, while women’s behavior is the aberration. When it came to the two female candidates – Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – and the female spouses of the candidates (with the exception of Michelle Obama), they were frequently described with negative female-centric put-downs and held to starkly different standards:
Hillary Clinton: “This woman shouldn’t be president.” This was supposedly a thought that a Clinton staffer had about Clinton (and shared with the authors) after observing Clinton’s response to losing the Iowa caucuses to Obama. Clinton was described as having a “bitter and befuddled reaction” and a “staggering lack of calm or command.” What specifically had Clinton done? Given a terse congratulatory call to Obama in which she said, “Great victory, we’re three tickets out of Iowa, see you in New Hampshire.”
By contrast, Game Change described McCain as someone who had frequent, profanity-laced outbursts, including one scene where he shouted the f-word 11 consecutive times in his wife’s face while sticking up both his middle fingers. The writers quipped that while Cindy McCain “burst into tears . . . she should have been used to it by now.” No one suggested that McCain shouldn’t be president, but over in Hillary Clinton’s camp a top political operative thought perhaps she shouldn’t become president because she was a tad rude in a phone call? For demanding answers from her staff as to what went wrong in Iowa? I couldn’t comprehend the disconnect.
In another section explaining Clinton’s behavior after Obama finally clinched the Democratic nomination, the authors wrote, “She was somber, prideful, aggrieved, confused – and still high on the notion that she was leading an army, Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-sized fake pearls.” She was Napoleon. With fake pearls. Not a flattering portrait.
Sarah Palin: Sarah Palin was likened to Eliza Doolittle and then to a child, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, that’s when she wasn’t belittled for having a “hissy fit” or a “conniption” over issues of importance to her. The book labeled the Alaska governor as being “a big-time control freak” and knocked her for never taking “no for an answer,” as if, in politics, this was a bad thing. Guess it is for a woman.
An interesting contrast: Both McCain and Palin were reluctant to prepare for debates. McCain kept avoiding debate prep, would swear and refuse to answer questions, was said to be “grouchy” and susceptible to distraction. Yet when Palin shut down and withdrew after hours of questioning from McCain staffers during her debate prep, she was considered possibly “mentally unstable” and said to be in a “catatonic stupor.” When Palin made a gaffe in the media, she was “a hick on a high wire” and naive, when Biden did he was said to have little self-restraint.
Elizabeth Edwards: “What the world saw in Elizabeth: a valiant, determined, heroic everywoman. What the Edwards insiders saw: an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” Those were observations provided by anonymous Edwards staffers and friends about Elizabeth Edwards, who, the writers added, was “prone to irrational outbursts.” (Women were frequently depicted as acting unreasonably.) Game Change said she was “always jealous of anyone, male or female, who seemed close to John.”
Cindy McCain: “Cindy Lou Hensley had always looked like a beauty queen (or a senator’s wife) with her ice-blue eyes and flaxen waves and delicate mien.” This physical description of Cindy McCain was in stark contrast to her portrayal later in the book as “erratic.” In one instance, she was described as having “flounced back to Phoenix” after she argued with her husband about Secret Service protection for the McCain family. Yes, “flounced.”
Judi Nathan: Giuliani’s wife Judi Nathan, she was said to have “pouted” when she didn’t get her way. The authors reported that she harassed her husband often by calling him on his cell phone, that is when she wasn’t becoming . . . wait for it . . . “hysterical” over negative news stories.
I wasn’t the only one to notice this ugly trend. Salon’s Joan Walsh  noticed it too: “Funny how the worst villains of the book are all women – Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Edwards and Mrs. McCain (did you know she's alleged to have had an affair?) – along with, of course, Sarah Palin. Game Change might have been titled ‘Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse’ so badly do those four females, two of them not candidates but wives, come off in what is supposed to be the definitive book about Campaign '08. Boy we've cracked that old glass ceiling!”
So was it the writers who had this negative attitude toward the women or was it the campaign staffers and friends who used sexist code words? Either way, the political climate seemed, at least according to this book, toxic. After I finished reading Game Change and seeing those illustrations, I felt dispirited and in dire need of a shower.