Sunday, March 11, 2012

Game Change: History Changed

I watched Game Change, the much touted HBO original based on the book by the insufferable Mark Halperin and his co-author, John Heilemann. It is entertaining, and Julianne Moore's portrayal of Sarah Palin as good as Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher. It is so good that it even redeems one of Ed Harris's worse performances, as John McCain (among other things, Harris fails to deliver his lines with any of the senator's gravelly voice and his physical mannerisms).

I should say that I did not read the book because, as I said above, I find that Mark Halperin insufferable. He is the embodiment of servile, "equidistant" journalism at its worst. Nonetheless, I can confidently say that I found Game Change unsettling in its attempt to portray John McCain more as the victim of a choice that he seconded, but which was made by his top campaign managers, than as the "game caller" he must have been in the process.

I'll say that I never subscribed to the wildly-held belief of the mainstream media that Sen. McCain is a "maverick" who represents a fresh and atypical departure from the world of party loyalism. In the events depicted in the film, either Sen. McCain really had little say in the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, and Sarah Palin was so out-of-control that it was impossible for anybody to restrain her in her "mavericky", rogue ways, or--an alternative that I find much more likely--he did not try or was unwilling to control her. Whichever the case, he was highly responsible for approving the choice of an obviously incompetent woman as his VP. If the latter is true, then obviously his judgment was faulty beyond reason and we are very lucky that he was not elected president.

The directors made the decision to portray the Arizona senator as being fairly detached from, and uninvolved in, the whole process of appointing his VP. I must assume that they have stuck fairly faithfully to how the book's authors chose to represent the senator. The problem I have is that there seems to be an obvious attempt to redeem Sen. McCain's poor judgment by showing that his choice may have turned out to be a bad one in retrospect, but that it was a justifiable "hail mary" at the time.

The film also shows Sen. McCain as pushing back against his advisors' judgment that Rev. Wright, the black pastor of the church that the Obama's attended for two decades, and who officiated the Obama's wedding ceremony, should be made into a campaign issue, because he did not want to drag race into the race (if you forgive me the turn of words.) As I remember things, the evolution of McCain's campaign into a series of one vile, baseless attack after another on candidate Obama was not sudden. Sure, it began with Sarah Palin's appearance on the national stage but it went on unchecked for weeks, before Sen. McCain finally started to pull back on the personal attacks. The moment when McCain gently rebukes a woman in the audience at one of his rallies for calling Obama an "Arab" came so late that it could not undo the damage to McCain's campaign image as one of hateful speeches and personal animosity. By then, Gov. Palin's and Sen. McCain's rallies had turned into vitriol-fests in which members of the audience shouted things like "terrorist" and "kill him", directed at candidate Barack Obama.

There is a scene towards the end of the film in which McCain's clan is shown celebrating Palin's performance after the VP debate as one of the greatest in the history of American political debates. Most impartial observers would agree instead that Biden made a meal of Palin, even without ridiculing her. That is the perfect example of what happens "in the bubble", in environments in which group-think and hope prevail over reason that things will turn out fine in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Certainly, in spite of the film's too generous and empathetic account of the events of the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 was one of the lowest points in American political history, perhaps only matched by George H.W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle as his VP. To paint any other picture of history is not a simple matter of opinion: it is a fictional re-write of history.

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