THE RISE OF SARAH PALIN AND THE FALL OF JOHN MCCAIN
HBO Spring 2012
Political cynicism is rarely rebuked. Seasoned operatives play the game to win by fair means or foul and apparently never consider the long-term consequences. When their glory days are long over, some, like Lee Atwater and Robert McNamara, recant their tactics and their lies. Game Change, an HBO special movie based on the well-received book of the same name, is a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of a half-baked political strategy that revealed the “dark side” of populism. Four long years have come and gone since the memorable and frightening 2008 Republican primary which revealed the fecklessness of a Presidential candidate, John McCain, who selected as a running mate, Sarah Palin, a neophyte governor utterly unfit for public office.
Sadly, the movie is slack and soggy, as half-baked as the plan to make Sarah Palin into viable vice-presidential material. This is a compelling true story that we all saw unfold in real time. Those of us wedded to the notion that a politician should be at least competent felt alarm and consternation at the rise of Sarah Palin. It would be hard to say which was more frightening—her supreme ignorance or her supreme raw political talents. The sheer terror of the thought of Sarah Palin as second in line to the Presidency, the shudder that ran across the body politic, is strangely subdued in this account of one of the most unforgivable insults handed to the American people. And yet, after watching this sympathetic account of a badly handled candidate, I came away with a new respect and empathy for Sarah Palin.
The real villains of the piece are Steve Schmidt and John McCain who needed a “game change” to confront and counteract the charisma of Barack Obama. Gently played by an amiable Ed Harris, John McCain is given an Easy Pass in this account of his catastrophic campaign. The John McCain of today is an angry man, still smarting over his humiliation at the hands of Barack Obama. Defeat has not sat well with him and he has shown none of the graciousness of a vanquished John Kerry or Jimmy Carter. Ed Harris makes John McCain seem like a doting and absent-minded grandfather, rather than a candidate wounded from the campaign against George Bush and determined to find redemption. There is no trace of his trade-mark hot temper, impulsiveness, and volatility.
That said, the movie clearly shows McCain as being reckless and irresponsible. On one hand, he casually used Sarah Palin to boost his percentage points; on the other hand, he abandoned her to his campaign staff, who came to hate her. Chief hater was Steve Schmidt, well played by Woody Harrelson, who really steals the movie. Schmidt rather liked Palin in the beginning but when the governor did not respond well to his wishes, he learned to fear and loathe his recalcitrant candidate. Unfortunately, Julianne Moore’s performance is thin and bloodless. Yes, she imitated Sarah Palin very well, but it is as if the imitation overwhelmed Moore’s ability to act and give power to what history suggests were a very real rage at what was being done to her. In the face of Harrelson’s Emmy worth performance, Moore almost recedes and we are never given a convincing emotional connection to how Sarah Palin broke away from her captors and went “rogue.”
The film obscures the fact that Sarah Palin had actively campaigned for a larger role in Republican politics, courting susceptible neo-conservatives such as Bill Kristol, who pushed John McCain to select her as a running mate. Kristol seems to have had a crush on the beautiful governor of Alaska and played a partial and outsider role to the campaign that gave his voice a significant weight with McCain. Doubtless, Palin also enchanted McCain who, in the beginning (in real life), was visibly besotted with her. By not making the connection between Palin’s active ambition and the thwarting of her fantasy of political stardom, her rise and rebirth after weeks of humiliation at the hands of the press has no foundation.
Game Change asserts that Palin was located through Google—an odd elision of known facts that makes the campaign look even more lacking in judgment that it was in real life. The criteria were few: the vice president must be a woman, to counter the Republican deficit with women, and she must be pro-choice, to inspire the listless Republican base. Given that America is behind Afghanistan in the percentage of women we have in public office, finding a Republican woman with the kind of political experience routinely granted to men was a difficult task. Most Republican women active in politics at that time were pro-choice, narrowing the field significantly, almost guaranteeing a Sarah Palin-type—lightly educated and living in an isolated area outside the mainstream.
All Sarah Palin had to offer was ambition, the skills of a performance artist, and a taste for public adoration. Sadly, from the very start, the McCain campaign mishandled a very viable politician who proved to be a game changer—if not in the way anyone had imagined. What Schmidt utterly failed to see, even after her acceptance speech at the Republican politician, was that Palin could not and should not be prepped into sophisticated knowledge of world affairs. It was the intention of the McCain people that their boss should have a running “mate,” or a political wife who would “support” his positions. Apparently assuming that a woman would be less ambitious than a man selected as vice president, the team did not consider the fact that the nation would view her the same way as a male candidate: as the proverbial “heartbeat” away from the Presidency.
Palin understood not only her expected role but also saw her nomination as a path to her own political future, and it is this ambition that Game Change failed to grapple with. Julianne Moore is never allowed to fully show the driving ambition that led to the eventual success of Palin and is forced to spend most of the movie in a state of shamed failure. True, Palin, as would anyone funning for office, needed to be “prepped.” However, her needs went beyond an updating or a boning up on obscure aspects of foreign policy: Palin had to be taught or educated at a high school or college level, but the film shows that she was prepared for press interviews with condescension bordering on contempt. In the process, the army of managers, consumed by concerns with her weaknesses, failed to see Sarah Palin herself and neglected to determine her strengths. The campaign proceeded to remake her in their own image.
The result was an artificial creation, an attempt to turn an ordinary Alaskan wife and mother who also happened to be a governor into a well informed chicly dressed talking head stuffed with undigested factoids. The problem was that political operatives were not trained as teachers and did not have a clue as to how to educate a human being. No one can learn disparate bits of information given without an intellectual context. In a reflection of No Child Left Behind, Schmidt and Wallace, tried to teach Sarah Palin for the test—interviews with the press. When confronted with this well dressed, sleekly made up vision political acumen, the press reacted accordingly, asking Palin the kinds of questions any run of the mill politician familiar with Washington D. C. could answer. What was seen, what we all experienced, live on television, was a person stricken by a panic attack when asked about the “Bush Doctrine”—-“In what respect, Charlie?” And her inability to think when asked about which newspapers she read—“All of them.”
Oddly, given the amount of time the film gave to the teaching of Sarah Palin, little time is given to the interviews, which were sheer agony to watch in real life. Nothing is more painful that witnessing a complete failure to construct a coherent thought but there is almost nothing in Game Change of Palin’s mangled syntax, twisted by what must have been her sheer terror. After the interview with Charlie Gibson, the campaign owed her an apology but instead the operatives blamed her and redoubled their efforts to cram facts down her throat as if she were a Strasbourg goose. No wonder, the poor woman became catatonic and rebellious.
Perhaps because the people who worked for McCain had ulterior motives concerning their own futures in politics, McCain is absolved and Palin takes all the blame. Nicole Wallace flatly refused to work with her (and ultimately to vote for her) after Palin bombed the Katie Couric interview, leaving the governor to the irritated mercies of Steve Schmidt. Lower placed operatives in the campaign clearly leaked their dissatisfaction with Palin to the press and undermined her during the campaign with the presumed effect of letting McCain off the hook and shifting the blame from themselves to an inexperienced candidate. In hindsight, everyone claimed that 2008 was a “Democratic year,” and the the McCain candidacy was doomed, particularly in the turbulent wake of the Bush presidency. Palin, then, was a “Hail Mary” attempt at a three-pointer.
If there is, as Palin claims today, a “false narrative” to Game Change it lies in the refusal to take responsibility on the part of the major players. Why did Schmidt and Wallace not see who and what they were dealing with—the real Sarah Palin? Was it unconscious sexism? Was it failure to recognize the capacities of a person so different from themselves? Was it their own blind loyalty to John McCain? This blind spot, whatever it was, blurs the heart of this narrative and, in the end, the film rushed past the most significant part—how Sarah Palin, possibly encouraged by her husband Todd, shook off her handlers and found herself, her own voice and reached past the campaign to the voters. In the process, she eclipsed McCain.
To this day McCain remains circumspect about Palin’s rise to fame and glory. After all, it was this very rise of Palin’s popularity that not only surely bruised his ego but also wrecked his candidacy by unsettling the balance of the campaign. And herein lies one of the great “what ifs” of 2008. What if Schmidt and Wallace had recognized the potential of Sarah Palin? What if they had allowed her to use the interviews with the press to reach out to the voters who had felt ignored and talked down to—the voters who adored her? What if the campaign had used Palin to reach the very groups they hired her to represent—conservative women and base voters? What if they had allowed her to be herself? No doubt Palin would have stumbled and made mistakes, but with proper guidance, perhaps she could have learned how to be a populist candidate with the heart she obviously had.
Instead, at the end of the campaign, what we saw was an angry mishandled woman on the loose, seething with resentment over the “lamestream media,” those very television journalists who had revealed her deficiencies and held her ignorance up to public ridicule. Although there the movie is far too lax in covering Palin’s self-redemption, the candidate struck out on her own and began to campaign her own way. Now that she drew huge and rapturous crowds, the campaign seemed to be unable to “handle” or contain her energies. According to Game Change, her populism disinterred the “dark,” racist, xenophobic side of American life. The audience to the film must fill in blanks that should have been edifyingly filled, showing us only a John McCain losing control of the narrative, horrified at the sight of the ugly underbelly of America and overwhelmed on Election Day by the public alarm over what had been unleashed.
In another area of fuzziness, both in chronology and agency, Game Change appears to blame Palin for linking Obama to a “terrorist” and to an America-damning pastor. But this kind of dirty guilt by association game had been part of the Republican playbook since Lee Atwater and remains fully operative today. In the end of the film, McCain warns Palin to beware of the “extremists,” such as the Limbaughs, of the Republican party. This brief scene appears too self-serving, too pat to be genuine, a much too obvious attempt to make McCain appear to be blameless for what Sarah Palin had supposedly revealed about the Republican “base,” no pun intended. But blaming Sarah Palin is another Easy Pass for the part Republican master-minds played in devising the infamous divisive “Southern Strategy”—divide and conquer through racism. Palin did nothing but take advantage of an already ready well-worn set of tactics and rode to glory on behalf of the “Real” America.
A year ago this month, Bill Kristol bemoaned the failure of Sarah Palin to take advantage of the (unearned) opportunity that was given to her. Like many of Palin’s former defenders and supporters, Kristol jumped ship after Game Change the book was published. It seems that they were disappointed that Palin’s reach towards fame exceeded her desire to do the hard work of growing into a viable politician. Instead of going back to being a governor of Alaska, gaining experience and preparing to take on the role of heir apparent in 2012, Palin compounded the impression she did not want to work by resigning half way through her term and becoming a television personality on a boring reality show. Instead of growing her candidacy for President into an aura of inevitability, Palin became an inarticulate talking head on Fox News, an embittered mockery of her former self, using self-righteous religion as a cudgel against liberals.
Rising from the ruins of the failed McCain campaign, a year later Steve Schmidt gave an timely interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes and indicated that, although Palin “helped” more than “hurt” the campaign, he would not chose her again. In clearing the ground just before Game Change was published, Schmidt sought redemption and exoneration for his part in what author John Heilemann termed an “irresponsible” action of foisting a “dangerous” candidate upon America. Schmidt’s mea culpa worked and, thanks to an excellent book and to this television movie, Schmidt has cleansed himself and continues to do penance on MSNBC.
Game Change the movie benefited from additional interviews and from reading Palin’s book, Going Rogue, and the new perspectives from her book clearly added to the “empathy” angle, as the screenwriters stated. One does feel sorry for Palin and it seem clear—book or no book, movie or no movie—that the McCain campaign let Sarah Palin down badly. But Palin herself profited only monetarily, not politically, from those intense months. One wonders…what if Sarah Palin had learned from her experience on the McCain campaign and surrounded herself with serious and sympathetic advisors? She could have molded her very real strengths as a devoted wife and mother and shaped her image as a normal person called to a higher office. She could have honed her formidable talents as a communicator.
But like a minor character in a Shakespearean tragedy—a Rosencrantz—Sarah Palin thrust herself to the fringes of history, a fleeting novelty, discredited by her own roiling resentment. Too bad. What if she had allowed herself to try to be better than she was, to learn? Imagine the Republican primary today with Sarah Palin on the debate stage. Her natural running mate: he whose name cannot be Googled. Now that would have been a real Game Change.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger