Few things seemed quite so dead in 2008 as the campaign book. The genre—invented by Theodore White during the election of 1960—was pushing 50. In the age of blogs and Twitter, who now would want to read a book about an election whose outcome was already known? Obama won, McCain lost, what more was there to say?
The answer, it turned out, was: all the best stuff.
In their brilliant 2009 book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin succeeded not only in breaking amazing news but also in revealing the characters of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Sarah Palin in a way no previous reportage had managed.
Now the book has been made into a movie for HBO, debuting March 10. The film focuses on one piece of the book: John McCain’s do-or-die vice-presidential bet on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The ranks of Palin’s fans have thinned since her astounding debut. HBO’s Game Change transports us back to that first, fresh moment when national politics was jolted by this charismatic Everywoman newcomer.
“I’ve got five kids too. And there’s something about her—she’s talking to me. And nobody talks to me.” So says one woman in a sequence of rapid clips of “voter” reaction to Palin’s first days on the campaign trail.
“I want to see how handsome my son Trig will be when he’s all grown up,” says Julianne Moore, playing Palin, as she strokes the face of an adolescent boy with Down syndrome on a campaign rope line.
“We never felt welcome to go anywhere before we saw you give that speech,” says the boy’s mother.
Interviewed about Palin in a noisy New York City coffeehouse, Moore explains: “I always say about acting: the audience doesn’t come to see you, they come to see themselves. So if you’re able to give them an experience where they feel: ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s me, that’s my story, they know me!’ then you’ve done your job. And that’s what Palin did.”
Has there ever been a vice-presidential candidate who excited such feelings?
A friend of mine was once invited onto C-SPAN to talk about his new book—a book not about presidential politics, it’s necessary to say. Before asking any questions, host Brian Lamb in his famous deadpan voice announced: “Before we talk about your book—it’s vice presidents’ week here on C-SPAN, and we’ll be showing pictures of former vice presidents and asking what you can tell us about them.”
On the screen popped an image of a frock-coated man sporting a walrus mustache. “Who is this?”
My friend squirmed on live TV. “I can’t help you there, Brian.”
“It’s Garret Hobart, President McKinley’s running mate in 1896!”
So it went through the roll: Daniel Tompkins and Hannibal Hamlin and John Nance Garner. And those are the guys who actually won.
McCain and Palin lost, and lost badly. Yet Palin survived that defeat to ignite controversy all through the next presidential cycle. Even now, no Republican has more ability to make news than Sarah Palin—including the party’s presumed 2012 frontrunner, Mitt Romney.
It was Palin, not Romney, who lit up the show at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The genius of Game Change is that it shows how this particular star was born.
The Sarah Palin of the summer of 2008 was a very different character from the Palin we know today. That Palin may have shared many weaknesses with today’s Palin: her emotional fragility and her cavalier attitude to truth. (At one point in the film, she is confronted by the movie’s central figure, campaign consultant Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson: “You have got to stop saying to the press things that are blatantly untrue.” She responds by asking when Schmidt will put out a press release denying that her husband, Todd, ever belonged to the Alaska Independence Party. Since Todd was a member for seven years, that was another blatant untruth.)
But that Palin differed from today’s Palin in one very important respect: she was not yet bitter or angry. She did not yet base her politics on discovering and exploiting the fault lines of resentment in an economically troubled America. That would all come during the campaign—it would come and it would remain.
Game Change the movie shows a Palin of almost unfathomable ignorance. Staffers discover that she has never heard of the Federal Reserve and does not know why there are two Koreas; she answers a prep question about the military alliance with Britain by saluting John McCain’s excellent relationship with Queen Elizabeth.
Efforts to instruct her send Palin into what one staffer describes as a “catatonic stupor.” And when Palin emerges, she is seized by the grievances that defined her public message from the autumn of 2008 onward. In those dying days of the campaign, she discovered the idea that would shape the final month of the campaign and the rest of her career: the divide between the “real” America—the America-loving America—and the despised rest of the country.
As financial markets collapsed in October, and the U.S. economy plunged into the steepest decline since 1930, the mood of the American electorate darkened. Palin’s rallies seethed with anger against Barack Obama, but also against all that Obama seemed to symbolize.
The first black president was also the first since Herbert Hoover with a foreign-born parent; the first since Woodrow Wilson to work as a college professor before entering politics; and the first since Grover Cleveland to have his principal home in a big Northern city.
To be all at once urban and academic and born to a foreign parent and black on top of that—it was almost impossible for a single person to represent a more perfect opposite to Palin’s invocation of the “real America.”
By luck or by some deep political instinct, Palin launched her attack on the credentialed urban elite at exactly the hour that this elite was discrediting itself as at no time since the urban crisis of the 1960s.
It was the mighty brains of Wall Street who first enabled the financial crisis—and then escaped scot-free from the disaster, even as ordinary Americans lost their jobs, homes, and savings. Palin was speaking to and for constituencies who had steadily lost ground through the previous decade—and who now confronted personal and national disaster. Meanwhile, the people asking for bailouts—and the people deciding whether to grant bailouts—boasted résumés that looked a lot like Obama’s private school/Columbia/Harvard Law School pedigree. That is, when they weren’t outright Obama supporters and donors.
And at the same time, the position of America in the world—and of the white majority within America—seemed in question as never before. There, too, Obama could be made to represent every frightening trend: the flow of immigrants (12 million of them between 2000 and 2008, half of them illegal); the rise of non-Western powers like China and India; the deadly threat of terrorism emanating from people with names like “Barack,” “Hussein,” and—give or take a consonant—“Obama.”
Game Change shows Palin gleefully exciting all these fears—and a dismayed McCain overwhelmed by them. “Who is the real Barack Obama?” McCain, as played by Ed Harris, asks a campaign crowd. “A terrorist,” shouts a man in a red gimme cap. Later, other voices from the crowd shout in reply to that same question: “A Muslim! A socialist! He hangs out with people who hate our country! Kill him! Send him back to Africa!” McCain recoils—but Palin is shown leading angry crowds in chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.”
“This is not the campaign I wanted to run,” Harris’s McCain wistfully laments. But it’s too late.
“I am raising millions of dollars for this campaign. Hundreds of thousands of people are coming to see me, not John McCain, God bless him. They are coming to see me. If I am singlehandedly carrying this campaign, I am going to do what I want,” Moore’s Palin triumphantly announces.
Which is what she proceeds to do, leaving a baffled and increasingly frightened Steve Schmidt to worry that nobody knows whether Palin is getting on a plane in the morning or what she will say at a rally that evening. Not even McCain will or can restrain her: “She might start turning on me,” worries the presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
In the end, the only people who do stand up to Palin are—of all unlikely heroes—the campaign’s political professionals.
They begin as pure operatives, concerned only to win and ready to accept Palin on that understanding. “My job is to give political advice,” says Schmidt in the film’s very first scene, a cleverly reconstructed 60 Minutes interview. “We needed to do something bold to win the race.”
“This is a fantastic rollout, Steve,” is communications adviser Nicole Wallace’s coolly appraising reaction to the deftly stage-managed introduction of Palin to the country. What matters, or so the professionals at first believe, is the presentation, not the person. One red-state governor must be pretty much like another—right?
The professionals soon discover their mistake. “I don’t even like to say this, but has it occurred to you guys that she might be mentally unstable?” asks one staffer about the woman the McCain campaign proposed to put next in line to America’s nuclear codes. As they come to know Palin, the campaign professionals begin to feel an awakening of conscience: first qualms, then fears, and finally revulsion—not for the campaign, not for their careers, but for their country. They supported McCain because they saw him, in Schmidt’s words, as a statesman and national hero running against a celebrity with no major life accomplishments. In hopes of reversing adverse poll numbers, they yoked a great man to a running mate who was not merely unworthy, but dangerous.
Some of the best acting in the film is in the looks of unspoken dread that flit about the faces of Sarah Paulson’s Wallace and Harrelson’s Schmidt as they react to Palin’s wilder and wilder provocations. What have they done? And if this campaign somehow wins—and Palin is put within reach of the presidency—what might they have done?
In the end, Wallace confesses she could not bring herself to vote for the ticket—and Schmidt is left to wrestle with his conscience before the 60 Minutes cameras, gallantly casting aside all self-excuse and self-deception. “You don’t get do-overs in life,” he says in the anguished voice of a man who wished one did.
Is this film accurate? I asked Schmidt directly. “I felt as if I were having an out-of-body experience as I watched,” he said. In other words: yes.
Palin’s own political career is over, a casualty of her own indiscipline, her own weaknesses, and her own eagerness for monetary gain.
It would be overly dramatic to attribute all the bad energies in American politics these past three years to Palin personally. The traumas and rancors of the Obama presidency emerged from social forces bigger than any one person.
Nor was Palin the only person to play to those passions: as Game Change the book makes clear, the Hillary Clinton campaign seethed with the same doubts about Obama’s Americanism to which Palin gave voice. As Byron York pointed out in the Washington Examiner, the book’s single most amazing quote comes not from Palin but from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the man who marveled that Obama speaks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” The movie about the bitter Obama–Clinton contest remains to be made.
Still, one person can always make a difference—especially when that one person is a naturally gifted politician animated by her own grievances, uninspired by any generous idea. We live to this day with the difference that Palin made.
It was Palin who injected the concept of “death panels” into the debate over health-care reform, suggesting to frightened seniors that the president was planning to kill them early in order to redistribute their benefits to his own younger and browner voters.
It was Palin who, more than any other politician, successfully transformed Obama’s sympathetic campaign-season words about rural America into a condescending disparagement. Here’s what Obama said: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. So it’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
And here’s what Palin did with those words: “The president says small Americans, small-town Americans—we bitterly cling to our religion and our guns because we are just doggone frustrated with his pace of change. You say, I say, we say—you keep your change, we’ll keep our God, our guns, our Constitution.”
Palin’s humiliation in 2008 at the hands of journalists, campaign consultants, and comedians deformed her character, and the person who emerged from that wounding experience has in turn done her part to degrade American politics over four long years of economic hardship.
Quite aside from its considerable value as entertainment, Game Change provides a perfect opportunity to begin counting the political and cultural costs of Sarah Palin’s abrupt rise and painful fall.