I should admit it right now, I really like Sarah Palin. I should hasten to add that under no circumstances whatsoever would I ever vote for her, for anything ever, and I shudder at the thought of how close she came to becoming Vice-President. But I’ve read several books about her, followed the 2008 campaign with some interest, and finally got to see Game Change, the HBO movie about that campaign, with Palin played by Julianne Moore. I’ve also watched several episodes of her reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. I find her fascinating.
Game Change is not, I should say quickly, a very good movie. It’s the kind of ‘real events’ political movie where people shout political slogans at each other, where people have hushed conversations in which they say things both characters basically already know. The screenplay for Game Change is credited to Danny Strong, who also wrote Recount, about the 2000 election, which was very much the same kind of movie, shouty and inside-gamey. Also credited: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, political reporters who covered the ’08 campaign closely, and who wrote the book on which the movie is based. They presumably interviewed most key players in the McCain campaign, and focus on two: Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), McCain’s campaign manager, and Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), the staffer tasked with Palin management.
In some ways, it’s sort of weird. Ed Harris plays John McCain, swearing like a sailor but basically decent and principled. But Barack Obama is played by video footage of Obama. The Vice-Presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden is disconcerting–there’s Julianne Moore as Palin, but playing Biden is. . . Biden. But Joe Lieberman (who McCain really wanted as his running mate), is played by Austin Pendleton.
It gives the film a kind of spurious authenticity. And so the really damning stuff–Nicolle Wallace trying to prep Palin for the Couric interview, while Palin can hardly be bothered to even be cordial, texting on her phone, then pausing to glare ferociously at Wallace when interrupted–doesn’t feel like what it was, a fictional recreation of events, because so many other events are archival footage, shown exactly as we remember them.
So just how ignorant was Palin? She was clearly inadequately vetted for the job. Apparently no one in the McCain campaign bothered to ask her even the most basic policy questions. They just assumed, as a professional politician, that she knew things like what the Federal Reserve is or that the Prime Minister of England runs the government, not the Queen. In one chilling scene, Schmidt asks two foreign policy experts to brief her; they tell him that they plan to start by outlining specific foreign policy issues relative to a post-Cold War era. Schmidt suggests that that might be a little advanced for her. Cut to the experts showing Palin a map of Germany, saying, ‘this is Germany. Germany was our chief opponent in World War I and II.’ And Palin nods, makes a note on a notecard: ‘got it. Germany: World War II. Good.’ Was this really something she didn’t know? Well, yes, quite possibly.
And yet the film shows something else: her real warmth on the rope line, the connection she made with families of special needs children. We see footage of a middle-aged woman who says something like this: ‘I have five children, like she does, and I love Jesus, like she does. She pays attention to me. Nobody pays attention to me.’
Moore has been criticized for a performance that doesn’t take us very deeply into Palin, that essentially scratches the surface. I think that’s unfair criticism; Moore can only explore Palin as deeply as the script allows her to. What Moore does show us are Palin’s quite considerable political skills. Schmidt calls her ‘the greatest actor of any politician in America,’ and that can be seen as a put-down. But Ronald Reagan was an actor, and, as President, a great one. The ability to connect with an audience, to not just deliver a speech, but really make it sing, that’s not an inconsiderable talent. President Obama is a fine political actor. He’s also a substantive policy wonk, which Palin could never have been. I don’t regret how I voted. But to say that Palin had remarkable political skills is not to denigrate her.
What the Palin phenomenon demonstrated is the power of populism, the value of that Frank Capra-esque myth of the decency and common sense of the average Joe. We see it all the time: the notion that what we need in Washington is to kick out all the bums and replace them with good old average everyday sensible Americans. That’s what we saw in Sarah Palin; a good woman, devoted to her family and her religion, trying to serve as best she could. But that’s also what we see–someone in way over her head, someone who wants to get close to the toughest job on planet Earth with basically no qualifications.
She won the lottery, and like most lottery winners, promptly blew every nickel of it. She’s done, a spent force politically. Her thin-skinned hostility to criticism, her vindictive pursuit of enemies, real and imagined, and her astounding, all-encompassing ignorance all overwhelmed her more positive qualities. John McCain, a 72-year old cancer survivor, made her his vice-Presidential pick. In retrospect, it feels like a desperately irresponsible decision.
What if he’d won? What if he’d then died? How well would President Palin have done?
Ronald Reagan proved the effectiveness of one model for a President; a leader who establishes only the broadest philosophic parameters of his Presidency, and allows his staff to work out the specifics of essentially every policy. It worked, I suppose, sort of. The Right today essentially deifies Reagan, mostly by getting everything about the man completely wrong. What the Right today forgets is the Reagan who signed into law the greatest tax increase in history, or the Reagan who proposed to an astonished Mikhail Gorbachev the complete bi-lateral elimination of both nations’ entire nuclear arsenals. Ronnie’s bite was always worse than his bark; his rhetoric may have been conservative, but on policy, he got along just fine with Tip O’Neill.
Could Palin have pulled that off? A Reagan-style Presidency? It’s hard to see how. Reagan came across as genial because he was, genuinely, a genial, likable man. Palin has alienated every friend she ever had. I think she genuinely likes Alaska, likes the wilderness; I think she’s a real outdoorswoman. But she never actually liked governing, and got out of office as soon as she plausibly could. Reagan may not have had a grasp of the entire breadth and width of all the issues Presidents are called upon to deal with, but he could handle a meeting or briefing. Palin was famous for zoning out.
Above all, she never could take criticism. Before becoming President, Reagan had a life-time’s experience with bad reviews. He shrugged ’em off, usually with a twinkle in his eye and a quip. He was a master of self-deprecating humor–Palin’s humor was always self-aggrandizing. What’s the difference between a hockey Mom and a pitbull? Lipstick. Good line, but also self-flattering. As Woody Harrelson’s Steve Schmidt points out in the film, Sarah Palin, in her Couric interview, could not name a single Supreme Court decision. None; not Dred Scott, not Brown v. Board. And Barack Obama taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago law school. Game change? Call it instead: Mismatch.