Please update your flash player...

Interview with John Heilemann, co-author of the book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime'

John Heilemann interview

HBO

What was the impetus for the book?

John Heilemann

Mark Halperin and I had been covering the campaign for a year and a half and it was not until the spring of 2008 that we decided that we were going to do 'Game Change.' We'd been covering politics for 20 years each, but we'd never seen a campaign as extraordinary as this one. Even before Sarah Palin came on the scene, it already had a cinematic quality: The Obama-Clinton drama of the Democratic nomination fight; John McCain coming back from the dead when his campaign had completely imploded. These are characters that were interesting -- not the way John Kerry is interesting, which is really not interesting at all. But interesting, interesting people.

HBO

And then Sarah Palin enters the race.

John Heilemann

Sarah Palin is almost a unique case because there is really no one in our lifetimes who has been plucked from such a degree of obscurity and asked to perform at such a high level with no national experience before. She had been the governor of Alaska. It's a very small state, and there's no national media that pays attention. Most people in the political class or in the national media class had heard of Sarah Palin , but she had never really been scrutinized in any meaningful way and yet now she was being asked within five days to get ready to give a speech on the biggest stage in national politics.

HBO

It's almost unbelievable.

John Heilemann

Most human beings, under those circumstances, would have a coronary. Very few would ever have the capacity to rise to that moment and perform in the way that she performed. And throughout the rest of her story, she has these incredible moments where she is performing at a level that almost no one in American politics could ever hope to perform.

It all looks really easy but behind the scenes, what these candidates are going through, it's the ultimate test of human endurance.

HBO

Do you think she had any idea what she was getting herself in for?

John Heilemann

I don't think anybody in American life who has not run for President has any idea what it's like to run for President. In the book we describe it as a combination flash incinerator/meat grinder. It is the most harrowing, emotionally, physically and psychologically demanding thing I've ever seen anyone have to go through -- and I've watched a lot of presidential cycles now. Things change from cycle to cycle, but the sheer relentlessness of what you have to do to run for President never changes.

The candidates nod, and they say, "I understand, I really understand." But they have no idea until it starts to happen. It's why presidential candidates who have gone through it once before tend to be so much better at it the next time around than people who are going through it the first time. It all looks really easy but behind the scenes, what these candidates are going through, it's the ultimate test of human endurance.

HBO

What kinds of people survive the madness then?

John Heilemann

I think almost all the people who run for President are very idealistic about their country. There are a lot of ways they could make money other than running for President -- although if you eventually become President, you obviously end up pretty rich in the end. With very few exceptions, the people who run for President run because they want to try to make their country better. It's very hard to be someone who doesn't like people, or someone who doesn't want the approval of people and do this successfully. To be inspirational, you must want to inspire.  And most people don't walk around life thinking they have that ability, that you are imbued with the gift of standing in front of hundreds of thousands of people and making them believe something powerful about the future of their country, and that you can help lead them to that future. Most people think: If I can have a reasonable conversation with my friends once in a while, OK.

HBO

Did McCain think he had found that level of inspiration with Palin?

John Heilemann

She was so compelling on so many levels: She was this incredibly charismatic woman, who, again, came out of nowhere. She was not someone with whom anybody had any familiarity, so that opens up a lot of potential when you're talking about how she gets defined in the public eye.

HBO

So when did things go off-course?

John Heilemann

I think in her case, the way pop culture worked to define her in a very powerful way, was with these two uptown Manhattan ladies, Tina Fey from 'Saturday Night Live,' and Katie Couric at CBS. They both had their identifiable takes on Sarah Palin. Tina Fey, a satirist and a comedienne, doing her Sarah Palin imitation, and then Katie Couric doing this series of interviews with Palin that -- not because of anything that Katie Couric intended to do -- but through a rigorous job of questioning her journalistically, exposed some of Palin's weaknesses as a candidate. The world we live in now, with the Internet, cable TV, everything plays in an infinite loop, and so you saw over and over again those clips of Palin talking to Katie Couric and the clips of Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, to the point where, for many people who didn't know Sarah Palin that well, that was Sarah Palin. It created this dynamic that was incredibly difficult for her to ever break out of.

Game Change

HBO Films

Now Airing

Interviews