Game Change

Game Change

It’s not surprising that Game Change—about the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign, and especially Sarah Palin’s role therein—was portrayed by those on the right, including some who admitted they hadn’t seen it, as a hatchet job on Sarah Palin (if not McCain or any and all Republicans), but from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, my guess is it’s reasonably accurate. Furthermore, its portrait of McCain is mixed but more favorable than not, and even Palin is not depicted as one-dimensionally evil and/or stupid.

I can watch and appreciate political documentaries like The War Room, but there’s no question Game Change is vastly easier to get into and more entertaining. I was engaged from start to finish, and in fact as it drew closer to the finish I was disappointed that it wasn’t considerably longer.

The obvious comeback to that is that documentaries are real, whereas a movie like this has the luxury/flaw of being able to deviate from the truth and invent scenes, dialogue, and I suppose even characters in whatever way is most audience-pleasing, so of course it’s going to end up more entertaining, but also more fictionalized.

Then again, documentaries make many compromises with the truth too. For one thing, the people in a movie like The War Room know when they’re on camera and when they’re not, and so can alter what they say and do to create the impression they want. It’s an illusion that you’re a fly on the wall watching a political campaign from the inside as it would be independent of observation.

Even taking that into account, I’ll still concede a greater truthfulness to The War Room than Game Change. But I’d assess the latter’s relative deficit in truth as slight, and its relative advantage in entertainment as large.

I’ve seen a fair amount of McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt on MSNBC as an analyst. On the one hand, Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of him is effective in that he is a dynamic, attention-grabbing, verbally quick, largely sympathetic figure. On the other hand, it didn’t feel like Schmidt to me. On TV, Schmidt comes across as humble, soft-spoken, and mostly frank but controlled in what he says. Schmidt on MSNBC and Harrelson-as-Schmidt in the movie are both more likable than not, but the latter commands a room in a way that the former does not.

Multiple times in Game Change the campaign faces situations that in part come down to a choice between following the principle of putting “country first” (the McCain slogan) or political expediency. McCain comes down on the side of principle on about half of those occasions. That’s probably at least twice as good as the average politician and ten times as good as the average conservative politician. I suspect it’s also somewhat better than the real McCain. So I doubt there’s any anti-McCain bias here.

The Palin choice itself is one of the times McCain is shown choosing political expediency. One of his staffers—who’s arguing against the majority view that Palin is the best choice—tells McCain that if he were focused solely on choosing who would be most qualified to be vice president and possibly eventually president, conventional choices like Joe Lieberman or Tim Pawlenty would obviously be far superior, whereas if he chooses Palin it will be (and will be perceived as) a gamble based on crass political calculations as to electability.

Maybe he’d increase his chances of winning, he’s told, but in so doing he’d be risking “losing your reputation.” “I’m not running for my reputation,” he replies, “I’m running for president.” And so it goes.

One point the movie makes emphatically is that Palin was very poorly vetted. It was a rush job, since they were trailing and looking for an “outside the box” choice—preferably a woman—at the last minute. On ethical and political matters, they caught some stuff and they missed some stuff; they probably did about an average job relative to how little time they had to work with.

But on knowledge, seemingly everyone thought someone else was checking that, so they did an appallingly bad job. It isn’t that they were willing to accept that she was an ignoramus because there were advantages to having her on the ticket; no one ever asked her about her knowledge of current events and such before she was chosen. So when it turned out she had never heard of the Federal Reserve, needed to be briefed on which countries were on which side in World War II, etc., it all came as a horrible shock to the staff.

From the moment Palin is introduced, she is indeed the most attention-grabbing figure in the movie, maybe 80% in the “Oh my God, what a train wreck!” sense, and 20% in a neutral or even sympathetic sense of just wanting to better understand who she is and how she responded to the bizarre circumstances of the campaign.

The movie includes all the gaffes and eye-opening gaps in her knowledge that happened to come up in interviews. Yet it never seems to use them as cheap shots; their inclusion never seems gratuitous. That’s unlike, say, W., where George W. Bush’s most famous verbal miscues are all thrown in to make him as much as possible a figure of ridicule. (On the whole, Game Change is a superior movie to W., and much fairer to its central characters.)

It even includes one doozy I hadn’t come across before, though maybe it’s better known than I realize. Prepping for possible interview questions, Palin is asked by the campaign staff about relations with Great Britain. She responds with some sort of empty rhetoric about the need to maintain our solid ties to the Queen. When informed, gently, that the United Kingdom is governed by a parliament, and that the monarchy is symbolic, this is evidently all new to her, and she accepts it with visible annoyance.

How could the movie not include her flubs, by the way, since she’s basically a nobody who did virtually nothing notable before or since except say these few dumb things in a campaign for vice president?

So how would I summarize Palin as presented in this movie? I’d say she’s average to below average intelligence, but makes it worse by being the kind of person who’s self-conscious about that and tries to bluff rather than admit when she’s struggling. She’s a bit less knowledgeable about world affairs and such than the average person who has been to college, and enormously less knowledgeable than you would want a candidate for president or vice-president to be. She understands that being ignorant in that way is only a minimal drawback for a politician, that once people make an emotional connection with you they’ll not even notice that kind of thing. And if they do, they’ll forgive it, and in fact will angrily react against the rudeness of your opponents or the media in drawing attention to it.

She’s probably sincere in her simple-minded fundamentalist religious beliefs. Her politically conservative ideology is probably a lot less sincere; it seems simply to be something she’s learned to appeal to demagogically to advance her career—more convenience than conviction.

She’s highly egotistical, even for a politician. No politician really abides by something like “country first” all the time, or even close to all the time, but she’s at the opposite extreme, where everything she says or does is about her, her political success and her popularity. She treats the campaign and McCain (and the country) as basically bit players in The Story of Sarah Palin.

She’s not as motivated by money in the movie as I’ve inferred in real life she is. Indeed, the movie even defends her as far as that incident where she and her family charged six figures worth of clothes to the campaign. I remember when that story broke, leaked by people inside the campaign I believe. It was framed as being about how the “Wasilla Hillbillies” took full advantage of their opportunities to live high on the hog with someone else’s money when they got to the big city. In the movie though, Palin is depicted as having been pushed to purchase the clothes by the staff, having no idea what they cost, angry when she found out and wanting to return the items, and never having wanted to wear anything other than the tasteful, unspectacular, sometimes thrift shop-level, clothes she was used to in Alaska in the first place.

She’s dishonest and hypocritical whenever it suits her purposes. For example, when she’s being considered for the ticket, she’s asked directly if she will defend McCain’s positions even when they disagree, including by cutting TV spots for them. Several specifics are mentioned. She unhesitatingly says yes. Then once she has the position, she simply refuses to cooperate when she’s asked to defend the very positions that were earlier specified to her.

When she wants something from somebody, or when she’s early enough in the process to not feel sure of herself, she’s exaggeratedly polite and tries to do what’s expected of her. But as soon as she has more confidence in her position and the fact that it would be political suicide for the campaign to dump her, she shows flashes of temper and a dictatorial side, and even more often slides into a petulant, childish mode where she simply refuses to respond to staff or anyone who has upset her, giving them the silent treatment until they give up and go away.

There’s no humility, no self-doubt in her. When things go wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault. If she looks bad in an interview, it’s always because the interview was unfair.

She mostly chafes at the staff’s efforts to control her. McCain, in contrast, is shown as having a pretty reasonable relationship with his campaign staff. He delegates a lot to them, and even on the big decisions that he knows are his and not theirs to make, he openly discusses them with them and listens to their advice. He respects the staff and the staff respects him, and while he’s always responsible for what happens, he largely lets them handle the kind of logistical and strategic things that constitute their jobs.

But Palin finds no kind of balance like that. When she tries to abide by the staff’s wishes, she feels constrained and unnatural. She much prefers “going rogue,” and it’s not as if she has no evidence in favor of that option. It always has the risk of opening the campaign up to ridicule, but it’s also why she’s beloved by so much of the base, why at times she’s more of an asset in getting attention and votes than McCain himself.

But her relationship with staff is nearly always bad. When she tries to cooperate, she’s often inept at it, lacking the necessary brains and work ethic to be the kind of competent candidate they desire. When she does things her own way, it’s with an attitude of contempt and defiance toward staff, not respect.

She’s simply in way, way over her head. You can talk about Obama’s resume being rather thin for a presidential candidate (community activist, state senator, very short stint in the U.S. Senate), and on paper Palin’s maybe doesn’t seem vastly better or worse (several years as a mayor and governor), but in reality it’s like they’re from different planets. Obama has the brains and the ability to rise to the level of his office, to learn from his experience. Palin is a very small-minded person whose abilities are far below even what you’d expect from someone with her experience. It’s like she bluffed her way even to the offices of mayor and governor and was vastly underqualified for those, let alone vice president or president.

She’s not ready for the big stage, to put it mildly. Other than a certain instinctive demagoguery, she’s clueless about how all this works. She’s just as unprofessional and ignorant about running for office as about holding office.

When she’s battling with staff, though, I wouldn’t say she always comes across unsympathetically. Mostly she does, but there are times you feel sorry for her, as you watch staff members who by then had lost respect for her and her intellect trying to manipulate her into doing things their way.

Maybe the best she ever comes across in the film is in her interactions with regular people. Yes, there’s some demagoguery to it, but there’s also a genuine connection with people who aren’t rich and powerful (though who are white and Christian), a sense of wanting to speak to and for such people. Maybe she’s secretly laughing at them, but that’s not how it feels at all in the film. It feels like she really doesn’t consider herself superior to them.

The most touching such scene in the movie occurs when she is greeting supporters after an event, and several people with Down syndrome (one of her children has Down syndrome) have been moved up front to see her. As uncomfortable as she is with staffers and press and such, that’s how comfortable she is with these folks and their families. And they sense it. They adore her, and how genuine she is with them. She tells one young man that she wants to take a close look at him so she’ll be able to see how handsome her son is destined to be, and he melts.

For many politicians shaking hands with a bunch of handicapped people is no doubt just one of the many dull or unpleasant things one must do to get elected. But she’s totally in her element. To her credit, you sense that if all politics was about interacting with folks like these, she couldn’t be happier.

There’s much to dislike about her, much to pity, and a little to admire.

I want to address a couple other questions that readily come to mind about Palin. One, did her being on the ticket hurt McCain on election day? Two, was she really an historically awful presidential or vice-presidential candidate? I think the conventional wisdom is that the answer to both questions is yes. I’m unconvinced.

Let’s start with the purely political horse race question. My impression is that most pundits fall into one of two categories. Some think she was a terrible choice. Some think she was a wise gamble, but one that failed. That is, just about everyone thinks the campaign tried for a home run and struck out with this high risk/high reward choice, but some think trying for the home run this way was the right call and some don’t.

In the movie, they do have Schmidt concede at the end that the campaign would have lost anyway due to the economy collapsing, but other than that one line, the clear position is that the choice of Palin turned out to be a political disaster.

I’m sure pollsters and such have analyzed this all to death, and I’m not up on all that and am really just responding off the top of my head, but my opinion of the voting population is low enough that I tend to think having Palin on the ticket was about a wash or maybe even a small net positive for the Republicans.

Surely the vast majority of people who came to love her are people who were always going to vote Republican anyway, and the vast majority of people who were appalled that someone like her could potentially be a heartbeat away from the presidency were always going to vote Democratic anyway. So the question becomes whether there were more exceptions in one direction or the other. That is, were there more people who otherwise would have voted Republican but were so bothered by her on the ticket that they changed their minds, or were there more people who otherwise would have voted Democratic but found her so appealing that they changed their minds?

I have nothing to back it up, but my guess is there were at least as many of the latter as the former. I can imagine plenty of largely apolitical people, or people whose politics are roughly in the center between the Republicans and Democrats, who could really identify with someone like her—someone they may well have seen as a religiously sincere family person, genuine in her fondness for regular folks, constantly being made fun of by the “elites,” and being asked “gotcha” questions by the media.

Yes, there were plenty of people denouncing her as terribly unqualified, but she was also drawing bigger crowds not only than vice presidential candidates typically do, but even than a lot of presidential candidates do. No wonder toward the end she thought of herself as the “star,” as more of a vote-drawer than McCain himself.

So I’m not sure. But I’d guess it was no worse than a wash.

But that aside, it would have been an unprecedented nightmare had she been elected vice president, and especially if she had become president, right? Surely no one this grossly unqualified has come this close to the White House, right?

Well, my guess is there have been plenty of really bad vice presidential candidates who weren’t much if at all more qualified to be president than her. But even limiting it to presidential candidates—heck, even limiting it to presidents—I frankly don’t think she’s unprecedented.

Sarah Palin has already been president. Her name at that time was Ronald Reagan.

I’d guess in terms of I.Q., Palin is mildly to moderately above Reagan (with a bigger gap if you factor in senility). In terms of actual knowledge, I’d guess Reagan was modestly her superior. Given his background—governor of the nation’s largest state, multiple presidential runs, etc.—by the time he took office, he’d been exposed to a lot more issues, had had to take a lot more positions, had had a lot more conversations about the kinds of things presidents deal with, etc.

But I think people forget just how frighteningly out of touch Reagan was. He was borderline literate; his people learned early that there was no point giving him anything longer than a page or two with plenty of pictures, because he wouldn’t or couldn’t read it anyway. He had no grasp of complex issues. He was almost certainly dumber than people like George W. Bush or Dan Quayle who have most been made fun of for being idiots in high office. On one occasion he didn’t recognize one of his own cabinet officers.

But a president isn’t—or at least doesn’t have to be—an intellectual. Often a president is simply a front man for those really calling the shots. By electing Reagan the country got an idiot for a president, but they got an idiot who would consistently implement certain policy positions that favored some segments of the population at the expense of others. If you liked those policies—you wanted an even bigger gap between rich and poor, you wanted the gloves taken off in defending capitalism internationally with murder and torture, you wanted a backlash against civil rights to favor white males, you wanted a continuation of the Drug War and massively more people incarcerated, etc.—then you liked the direction of the country in the Reagan years. If you didn’t like those policies, then you didn’t like the direction of the country in the Reagan years. In neither case did it matter all that much that the figurehead happened to have a low I.Q.

Maybe you could convince me that Newt Gingrich is substantially more intelligent than Teddy Kennedy, or that Jesse Helms had more experience holding higher political offices than Dennis Kucinich. So what? Do you really think I’d rather have had a President Gingrich or President Helms than a President Kennedy or President Kucinich, just because they’re arguably more “qualified” in some sense?

We elect people based on such things as how good a speech they give, how well they do in “debates” (i.e., how smoothly they make prepared speeches seem somehow responsive to debate questions), and especially how much we expect to be on the same side of issues as them. Things like brains, moral character, and experience are way down the list. So Palin is not some sort of a fluke. She fits the criteria for being president reasonably well.

I think a Palin presidency would be terrible for the country in the same way the Reagan presidency was terrible for the country. Not because they’re idiots—that’s a minor factor—but because I disagree with them on virtually every issue.

But I really don’t think we’d be somehow sailing into uncharted waters with a Palin presidency. We’ve had presidents—Reagan most notably—who were very dumb, very lacking in relevant knowledge, or both.

There’s a striking scene late in the movie when a staffer admits through tears that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for the ticket due to how awful Palin was—not in terms of ideology, but in terms of brains and basic competence. I can understand that, but really I don’t see myself reacting that way. If I were the kind of person willing to work for a Republican presidential campaign, presumably I’d want a president making anti-abortion Supreme Court nominations, tilting the economic system all the more in favor of the rich, spending more on the military, letting the country take on more the characteristics of a Christian theocracy, etc. In that case surely I’d prefer a President McCain and even a President Palin to a President Obama, regardless of whether Palin ever reads newspapers or knows why there’s a North and South Korea.

Anyway, Game Change is a highly watchable, well-made film. Solid recommendation.

2 thoughts on “Game Change

  1. Movie Maniac April 26, 2015 / 4:41 PM

    I’m curious about this one since I’m a political junkie. Great review.


    • Philo April 26, 2015 / 4:50 PM

      Thanks Movie Maniac. I think it’s one of the best movies of its kind I’ve seen.


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