That Palin Movie
“Game Change” is a docudrama about the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008 and the conflicts she had with his staff throughout the campaign. The movie gets the history mostly right, and I know this because most of what happened, such as her and his campaign appearances and speeches and interviews, which are the dramatic moments in the story, were on live television and I saw them there and most of the behind the scenes gossip was reported in real time in the newspapers.
The movie tries hard not to make things up. There are only silences when Palin watches the Tina Fay imitations because we don’t know what she said when she did, and only Steve Schmidt may have known until it became known to the world through this movie that Nicolle Wallace, a top campaign aide, had finally not been able to bring herself to vote for the McCain-Palin team. Schmidt was obviously a main source for the writers of “Game Change”, the book, and nobody has disputed the substance of the events portrayed as inaccurate, though the comeback by Schmidt to Palin when she insists she wants to be part of the concession speech, which is that a losing candidate legitimizing the winner by being generous spirited is a sacred occasion whose significance Palin clearly does not appreciate, is a very neat way to sum up her inadequacies. But I will give them that one. The only point I would think it had been unnecessary to leave out was that Palin probably first came to the attention of the McCain campaign not because of an Internet search but because of the now notorious cruise to nowhere (Alaska, that is) whereby The National Review editors introduced themselves to Palin and were besotted by her sexy glibness, though I think it should have taken only a few minutes with her to see how thin that glibness was. In general, though, the point holds. Palin has not gotten much traction with testimonials of how cooperative she was on the campaign trail because we were all there when she made a fool of herself.
The dramatic theme of the movie is that McCain’s theme and key selling point of “Country First” was overtaken by expedience. The McCain team realizes and makes McCain realize that it would be impossible to put over a McCain-Lieberman ticket because the Republican Convention, just as the newspapers reported at the time, would not have gone along with it. But another key theme of American history alongside the idea that people should put country first, as Alexander Hamilton did when he backed Thomas Jefferson rather than leave the country to Aaron Burr, who never forgave Hamilton for that, was that the people should not be prohibited from selecting the candidates they want. A McCain-Lieberman ticket might appeal to mavericks in both parties, but the Republican Party did not want a pro-choice candidate on their ticket, however much they treated Lieberman as their favorite Jew. If McCain and his team wanted to be real big game changers, they could have run as a third party ticket, and might well have won over an Obama led Democratic Party and a Romney led Republican Party. In fact, that idea was bandied about in the newspapers as well as behind the scenes. If the times were as perilous as they made it out to be, patriotism would have called for no less. Instead, we are left with, of course, an Obama led Democratic Party (one with which I am pretty happy) and a Romney led Republican Party (and nobody seems happy with that). The present is a permutation of the near past.
Another instance of the recent past being not too remote from the present is the context supplied by the Know Nothing Republicans. They kept McCain from being McCain: a campaigner with a wry but good natured wit who took jabs in 2000 at the New York Times for being Pravda and no one took offense. Schmidt points out in the movie that some might be put off by McCain quoting an adage of Mao’s with approval. Like all good soldiers, McCain had prepped on his enemy. And yet, in the 2008 campaign, McCain could not criticize Obama without it turning ugly. There was just no way to get the Right on board for a civilized campaign that would not drive independents to vote for Obama as a way to prove they were not on the dark side. The ugliness of the Right is still there. A majority of Republicans in many southern states still insist that Obama is a Muslim, which I take to be the euphemism of the day for pointing to the fact that Obama is, indeed, an African American. It is also the case, and this the docudrama does not state except in making Ed Harris’ John McCain look very old, that the McCain of 2008 was past his prime, far less riveting and quick a figure than he had been in 2000, which is when he should have gotten the nomination given, instead, to a much less worthy opponent. That McCain would have been so much better on foreign policy than Bush, who was not there to tell Cheney what to do when Cheney needed telling off. The McCain of 2008 was running on memories of better days.
A third instance of four years ago not being really all that far back is that the same names are or at least were for a time in play. Joe Biden is still there, and I think him not coming down hard on Palin during their debate was planned in advance. The Democratic team did not want the public to wind up feeling sorry for Palin because an obviously superior intellect was showing off at her expense. So Biden just won the debate on points and only Palin (and the Republican team, in the movie, who took credit for giving her a script to memorize rather than requiring of her that she understand the lines she was reading) thought herself vindicated, and so free to throw her weight around, which is apparently what happened for the rest of the campaign. Oh, how people misread things.
And that is why Palin comes across in the movie as a person you feel sorry for rather than just despise. That was quite a triumph of dramaturgy. Everyone knows what it is like to meet people who immediately outclass you intellectually. You are intimidated; you are angry; you are embarrassed; you want to find a reason to say it is untrue, or at least that being outclassed in this way doesn’t really matter. Julianne Moore is just wonderful at allowing the variety of expressions that indicates these multiple states of mind to pass over her face and she expresses these emotions as well in her body language, whose gestures are right-on Sarah Palin. Palin had been through what Arnold Birenbaum calls “transitional deviance”, by which he means that many children with border line I.Q.’s are able to live quite satisfactory lives once they are no longer in school and become regarded by their families as merely slow or deficient in judgment and so have to have their lives managed more intrusively than the children in the family who are more with it.
Palin had a bad educational experience. It took five colleges to get her a degree. Most people in political life are smart enough to master whatever short answers they need to deal with issues that are over their heads and most of those do not try to become Congresspeople, much less Vice President. Palin was thrown in the deep water and could not get over the shock. She was the object of contempt; she came to recognize that writing index cards did not help her retain information—something that had probably also occurred when she had recourse to that method in one or another of her colleges. She had thought she was beyond that, and here she was back in it under a national spotlight. You have to feel sorry for her trying to cope and then giving up and sulking and then believing she had triumphed, lording it over everyone who regularly trot by while knowing a lot more than she does about everything. All serious politicians read newspapers; only she thinks it is an unfair question, which in some way it is, because Katie would never have asked that question of Obama, but is there a polite way to ask if you are totally ignorant of what you need to know to be Vice President? Ronald Reagan did not know many facts, but he had his ideological talking points down cold. What did Palin know cold?
I will not let Palin off the hook. She knew what kind of student she had been in school. She knew the depths of her ignorance. She had met other governors, after all. She knew she elided challenges to her intellectual competence with her charm. She had done that for many years. But she must have known there is a difference between campaigning and governing because she did not like very much the actual governing responsibilities of a governor of a small state. She should have removed herself from contention because the glamour was not worth it. And that failure is a moral failure, not an intellectual failure. Everybody knows what things they should not try to do because they are beyond them. Vanity is no excuse.
The question is whether Republicans have learned anything since 2008. I think not. Sarah Palin, if elected, as was said at the time and as is repeated in the movie, would have been one beat of a seventy-two year old’s heart away from being President. That was too close a call. Today, Rich Santorum, who last night won the Mississippi and Alabama Primaries, and so has a shot at winning the nomination, would be one day away—Election Day in November—from being President of the United States. This is a man who doesn’t believe in evolution or in contraception for anyone. That sets the clock back about a hundred years, at least. And we are supposed to think that good sense will reign because his advisors will somehow corral him and keep him from waging a battle in Congress to get legislation to support the causes closest to his heart? Do voters want to take that risk? Do the Republican honchos have no conscience, just because they would have him in the bag on economic issues? They want their daughters to be able to use birth control, don’t they? Will they stick their noses into the Tampa tent rather than just hold their noses, like Nicolle Wallace, and just not vote? When will the GOP have gone so far over the edge that the big money people will say “enough is enough”?