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The New York Times

November 7, 2013

War of Umbrage: Double Down, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

By Michael Kinsley
Chasmal. Is that a word? Here, Ill use it in a sentence for you: Santorum had been turfed out
of office in 2006, losing his re-election bid by a chasmal 18-point margin. According to
Merriam Webster, it is indeed a word, meaning resembling a chasm. In other words, Santorum
got beaten badly. But why use other words, when chasmal is available?
How about suasive, as in: Romney was aware of how jaundiced Stevens was about Christie
which made Stuarts advocacy for choosing the guy as V.P. all the more suasive? From the
context, it must mean the same as persuasive, and you do save three characters, if youre short
on space.
O.K., but how about acuminate? Or appetent? Or pyretic? Or hoggery and
noisomeness, or coriaceous or vomitous or freneticism? Make sure to have a Scrabble
dictionary nearby when you read Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemanns hot new
book on the 2012 presidential election. Theres nothing wrong with fancy words if they help to
refine your meaning. In the hands of Halperin and Heilemann, though, they have the opposite
effect. Being frenetic is a form of behavior; freneticism sounds like a philosophy of life or type
of yoga.
There is actually no vomit in the scene the authors describe as vomitous. Its just their way of
writing vividly. Theyre not snobs. They actually have a weakness for colorful vernacular, with a
special fondness for a particular bodily function. And its not the usual one. The many references
to excrement people serving it to one another on a bun, people burying one another in it and
so on are . . . are . . . help me, I need a word here. Well, theyre vomitous. This may be the
first political book ever with more excrement than sex.
They are fond of retrograde (old-fashioned) or simply odd similes and metaphors. For Senator
John McCain to endorse Romney would have seemed as likely as a terrier reciting Tennyson.
The economic adviser Gene Sperling was enamored of his work in the way that Dean Martin
enjoyed martinis. And alliteration: McCains endorsement was based on a mixture of caprice,
calculation and comparative chagrin. President Obama and Vice President Biden developed a
personal peachiness (i.e., they liked each other), after starting out as chalk and Camembert
(i.e., they didnt like each other). The usual expression is chalk and cheese I dont know
what that Camembert is about. Romney didnt like the Huntsman family and the Huntsmans
vice versad the vitriol. But the authors dont always get it precisely right. Major-domo
means a servant or butler not, as they seem to think, a bigshot muckety-muck.

George Bush the Elder and the Younger refer to themselves as 41 and 43. But do Clinton
and Obama refer to themselves as 42 and 44? And do people really call the Oval Office the
Oval for short? That is how Halperin and Heilemann refer to them, and their workplace. Obama
is POTUS. The first lady is FLOTUS. Obamas campaign staff is referred to as the Obamans
or Obamaworld or, bizarrely, Chicago (where the campaign headquarters were). Romneys
entourage is Romneyworld or Boston. Romney himself is the Bay Stater. When Gov.
Chris Christie of New Jersey enters the drama, he and his staff are referred to as Trenton. Its
like Shakespeare (in this sense only) the merging of the nobleman and his seat: Lancaster,
Norfolk and so on.
Unlike cities, states are almost never referred to by name. Its not Pennsylvania, its the
Keystone State. Its not South Carolina, its the Palmetto State, and so on. Senator Harry Reid
is the Nevadan. Does anyone other than the authors of this book call former Senator Rick
Santorum Santo?
Halperin and Heilemann had a huge success with their previous book, Game Change, a seemingly
minute-by-minute account of the 2008 presidential campaign. Now they want the franchise, the way
Theodore H. White had it with his Making of the President series in the 1960s. Their new book is
chock-full of anecdotes, secret meetings, indiscreet remarks. They gathered string in 500 interviews. All
the usual Washingtonians talked to them not for the sake of history, or even to make sure their side of the
story got told, but because they wanted to be included. People buy the book for similar reasons. No one
can compete. Thats what it means to own the franchise. Its a small club: these two guys and Bob
Woodward. And with this book, theyve earned their admission.

Trouble is, to write an exciting book of political trivia about the 2008 campaign is one thing. To
do the same about 2012 is another. In 2008, both parties had primary battles. The serious
candidates included a woman and an African-American for the first time. As a special gift to
journalists, God gave us Sarah Palin. About halfway through the fall campaign it started to dawn
on people that we were also having a huge financial crisis. In 2012, there was none of this. And
the final candidates of the two parties both had personalities that were particularly fuliginous
Halperin and Heilemann try hard to pump some drama into 2012. Mitt Romney doesnt just
wake up some morning after sleeping badly. The morning light shone harshly on Romneys
fitful reverie. When the former governor Jon Huntsman (the Utahan to you) enters the race,
its Mormon rivals on a collision course with all the drama that implies. Which
unfortunately is not much. But then came a bolt from the blue: a new . . . survey . . . that put
him at 10 percent. This is Santorum in Iowa, and getting 10 percent of the vote in the Iowa
caucuses is not exactly what you could call a mandate to govern. But Halperin and Heilemann
The authors also recreate some memorable moments. There is Representative Michele
Bachmann, performing a reverse Sally Field after coming in last in the Iowa caucuses, sobbing
God, Im a loser. . . . God, I turn people off. There is the president of the United States
dropping the F-bomb, then surprised when others drop it even more often in his presence. And
according to the authors sources, the Obama team did consider swapping out Joe Biden for

Hillary Clinton, despite denials. Some of these scenes and conversations have been previously
reported, but most are brand new, based on the authors cyclopean (large or vast) reporting.
The authors make an earnest attempt to squeeze a unifying theme out of the books title.
Wherever possible, they have people doubling down on one thing or another. But the actual
theme of the book is the same as that of most books about elections: the oft-deplored horse
race. To make this particular horse race work, they have to exaggerate the importance of bit
players like the businessman Herman Cain and the self-promoter Donald Trump, both of whom
are treated as potentially serious threats.
The only really exciting part of the campaign came during the Republican primaries in the spring
of 2012. And writing about this period is when Halperin and Heilemann are at their best, with
lots of juicy tidbits. Week by week, each candidate except Romney took a turn as front-runner,
suddenly up in the polls and the one to beat, then just as suddenly yesterdays news. Republican
voters were looking for love, going on one date after another, but finally letting their heads rule
their hearts, doing the responsible thing (or so they thought) and marrying that nice rich boy their
mother liked so much. They knew all along that Romney was a liar. They just had to hope he had
been lying before when he presented himself as a moderate, mainstream, business Republican
and wasnt lying now, when he presented himself as a bona fide red-meat conservative.
Halperin and Heilemann tell it pretty straight. You cannot guess, from reading the book, whom they voted
for. But you can sense their devotion to a higher creed, that of the political journalist. Two provisions of
that creed stand out in particular. First, no detail is too trivial to report. Blame Politico, the newspaper
about politics and its accompanying Web site (for which I used to work), for this. It has built an empire on
the droppings of less-successful publications. Item 2 in the creed is respect for professionalism, however
it manifests itself. Political advisers ought to know when and how to lie, cheat and steal for their
candidates. Thats their job, and they should do it well. It is the journalists job to expose them if she can.
And if we all do our jobs well, we dont need to worry about things like, well, lying, cheating and

For example, an unmistakable cloud of contempt hangs over the authors telling of an idea that
Joe Biden had during the campaign. Why not, said Biden, send millions of households a
pamphlet about where the president stood on the issues of controversy in the campaign? Yes, a
pamphlet, they write witheringly. Yes, millions of copies. But what is so obviously stupid
about this idea, except that it is not the kind of thing you pay the pros to come up with?
Politics is a macho, macho world as Halperin and Heilemann portray it. The Romneyites
convened a series of Kill Newt meetings. Mitt was perfectly happy to strafe the speaker until
he was a human colander. Romney is not unique though his particular violent patois comes
from the world of management consulting, especially Bain, where Romney worked, and where
they talk a lot about having the other guy for breakfast, or eating his lunch or serving his private
parts up for dinner, and so on.
And yet these tough guys melt into a puddle at the slightest hint of an insult even if they have
to fake indignation. If Election 2012 is remembered for anything, it will be as the final (lets
hope) flowering of the art of umbrage. Umbrage was the engine of the campaign. It was what
kept things moving along.

Typically an umbrage episode began when someone would say something he or she shouldnt
have. This may be because its not true. More often, its all too true. Remember this one from
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas? If you say that we should not educate children who have come into
our state for no other reason than theyve been brought there by no fault of their own, I dont
think you have a heart. I thought this was the sweetest thing Id ever heard Rick Perry say. But
Halperin and Heilemann make clear it was a terrible mistake, because it suggested that anyone
who disagreed with him on how to treat people who were brought to the United States as young
children, and had no other home country to go to, was heartless. (Romneys position was that if
you make it unpleasant enough for them to stay, people will self-deport. How dare you call
him heartless!)
Mitt Romney pounded away at the Texan on the issue for a solid month. Halperin and
Heilemann call it an act of political suicide, . . . verbal seppuku. Newt Gingrich committed a
similar gaffe, calling for a humane immigration policy, and taking a similar pounding from
Romney for that.
The authors lend a sympathetic ear to Karl Rove, the Republican Rasputin, as he describes his
disgust at hearing that Newt Gingrich took a few hours off one Saturday morning in Chicago to
go see the dinosaurs at the Field Museum. Can you spot the gaffe? Its not Rove dissing Gingrich
for going to a museum. The gaffe is Gingrich taking time off from politics to go to a museum.
Shame on him! As the authors put it, he frittered away valuable time.
To me, its one of the best things Ive ever heard about Newt. God forbid he should take a
Saturday off and go to a museum. God forbid someone running for president should have any
interest except politics.
Gingrichs wife, Callista, did not want him to run. In one of their few moments of discretion, Halperin
and Heilemann write intriguingly that Gingrich wheedled Callista into acquiescence, promising that he
would accommodate her priorities. It sounds suspiciously like a euphemism. Has poor Newt been
accommodating her priorities ever since?

Romney was ruthless about exploiting gaffes by others, but he also was the biggest victim of the
umbrage wars. He said he wasnt concerned about the poor. He also said he didnt care about the
rich. In context, he was sucking up to the middle class and got entangled. But he didnt mean to
say what he was taken to have said.
The most significant gaffe of the campaign was by a Democratic operative named Hilary Rosen,
who told CNN that Ann Romney, Mitts wife, never worked a day in her life. This was
immediately recognized by all sides as a big mistake, and Romneys team lost no time in saying
how appalled and hurt they were. (Ann Romney had raised five boys, as she lost no time in
pointing out. No one was tempted to take the position that raising five boys was not work.)
But in fact, the Romneys and their camp were not appalled and not hurt by this remark. They
were delighted. Halperin and Heilemann describe Ann Romney telling a campaign aide,
apparently right after she heard about it: Thats offensive to me. And boy, its stupid politically.
We can really go after them on that. Later, forgetting that she was supposed to be deeply
offended, Ann Romney was overheard calling Rosens gaffe an early birthday present.

The whole umbrage routine is now an established political chess move. Politicians and their
advisers pray that the other guy will say something offensive, or something that can be
characterized or misinterpreted as offensive. Then they take mock offense. Gotcha! Yet by its
nature a gaffe is something the speaker didnt mean to say. It may reflect his or her true belief or
it may not. But if it was said unintentionally, theres no logical reason the speaker should be held
to it. Yet the gaffe/umbrage two-step is now the basic move in our politics. Its ridiculous. This
isnt a game.
One subject that gets barely a mention in Double Down because it played virtually no role
in the 2012 campaign is race. In a book that aspires to be, and largely succeeds in being, the
dispositive (or do I mean definitive?) account of the election, that may be the most remarkable
fact of all.
Michael Kinsley is editor at large of The New Republic.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 24, 2013
A review on Nov. 10 about Double Down, an account of the 2012 presidential campaign by
Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, misspelled the surname of one of President Obamas
economic advisers. He is Gene Sperling, not Spurling.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 1, 2013
A review on Nov. 10 about Double Down, an account of the 2012 presidential campaign by
Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, referred incorrectly to the printed edition of Politico. It is a
newspaper about politics that is published five times weekly when Congress is in session; it is not
a biweekly newsletter.