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'Game Change' tells core truth about Sarah Palin and U.S. politics

March 12, 2012|By David Horsey
  • Like the HBO movie "Game Change," a Horsey cartoon from September 2008 illustrates how the McCain campaign quickly recognized the impulsive recklessness of picking Sarah Palin.
Like the HBO movie "Game Change," a Horsey cartoon from September…

The HBO movie “Game Change” may not be the whole story, but it is a true story about Sarah Palin and the power of ineptitude in American politics.

Palin and her partisans have trashed the movie for one very good reason: no matter how sympathetic to Palin’s personal predicament the film may be, the central plot point is that John McCain and his campaign team picked a shockingly unprepared person to be his running mate.

Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior political advisor, and other top campaign operatives were primary sources for the book on which “Game Change” was based. They have attested to the accuracy of the details in the film and I have little doubt that what shows up on the screen reflects what really happened. Still, perception of reality being a very individual thing, I’m also sure Sarah Palin may have experienced the same events in a different way.

For example, at the end of the movie, Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, and Palin, entirely inhabited by Julianne Moore, have a confrontation over Palin’s demand to deliver an election night concession speech. The script gives Schmidt the kind of heroic lines that we all wish we could come up with at dramatic moments and the effect is to make Palin’s speech idea seem insane. Obviously, Palin, then and now, would not agree. 

Still, having observed the 2008 presidential race with obsessive fascination, I found “Game Change” entirely on target and the complaints of the Palinistas quite obviously self-serving. Palin may never accept that her notoriously bad interview with Katie Couric went awry because of her answers, not because of Couric’s “gotcha questions,” but her perception does not alter the truth of what everyone witnessed: a candidate for vice president who was ignorant about very elementary facts of foreign policy and government.

Almost any man-on-the-street interview will reveal a similarly huge gap in the knowledge of average Americans. Like candidate Palin, average citizens may not know what the Fed is or who runs the British government. They might find it hard to name the news magazines or newspapers they have read lately because, like her, they don’t actually read them. This is both disturbing and understandable. Most people aren’t paid to pay attention, unlike professional pundits and politicians. The political game goes on above their heads and they feel estranged from the process.

In 2008, Sarah Palin’s life experience was far closer to that of the people than to the professionals. While the pros were appalled that she had no command of the facts, the folks out on the rope lines recognized someone who had come from among them. They saw an attractive mother of five, beset by insiders and media elites, who was battling back and expressing gut feelings that were the same as theirs. 

That appeal was what made Palin an overnight political phenomenon. As the movie shows, Palin understood the power of her persona and came to believe she could save McCain’s campaign by ignoring Schmidt and the political experts. She may well have believed herself to be a Ronald Reagan-like figure for whom destiny had greatness in store.

Perhaps she could have become a female Reagan, but Reagan did not become Reagan overnight. He honed his stagecraft for decades; Palin had a short stint as a local TV sports reporter. Reagan served eight years as the governor of the nation’s most populous state; Palin had worked less than two years as governor of big, empty Alaska. Even when he was president, there were still unsettling moments in press conferences when Reagan seemed as baffled and inarticulate as Palin was with Couric. But, by then, Reagan had years of experience on the big stage and could finesse his way through. Palin had just a few days of frantic coaching on the basics before she was thrown into the media maelstrom. 

Sarah Palin had political smarts but no knowledge. She did not know how much she didn’t know. When asked to join the Republican ticket, she immediately said yes with the utter confidence of the clueless. And who can blame her?

The blame for this reckless choice lies with the smart guys, like Steve Schmidt, who thought they were clever enough to transform the presidential campaign. The biggest lesson of “Game Change” is not that Sarah Palin is dumb, it is that all the wise guys who manipulate the chutes and ladders of the American political system only flatter themselves when they think they are so much smarter than everyone else.

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