In the lukewarm heat of this American presidential primary season, with Mitt Romney’s pandering flip flops, Rick Santorum’s alarming fulminations, and thus Barack Obama’s growing chances to win a second term in the White House, think back four years ago to two little words that hadn’t yet entered the political lexicon: Sarah Palin.
Then ponder all the other household words that followed: pit bull with lipstick, you betcha, first dude, Bristol and Levi, Tina Fey, going rogue, Tea Party darling, feminist nightmare, mavericky, cross-hairs, and of course, field-dressing a moose.
The very thought of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s roller-coaster run as the Republican’s vice-presidential candidate, following Hillary Clinton’s thrilling but futile grab for the Democratic brass ring, makes me oddly nostalgic. It was so confounding, so exhilarating, so scary, it was like a movie!
And now, in fact, it is a movie: Next weekend HBO airs Game Change, a fascinating two-hour docudrama based on the juicy 2010 bestseller about the campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin.
In the movie, which focuses only on the GOP campaign, Ms. Moore poignantly plays Ms. Palin as a likeable and determined conservative politician who was so fatally self-confident she not only didn’t realize how cynical the McCain campaign choice of her was (“get me a woman,” says the former war hero, played by Ed Harris), but doesn’t come close to grasping how woefully unprepared she is to be, as one horrified pundit put it, “one 72-year-old’s heartbeat away from the Presidency.”
Looking back, it's clear that Ms. Palin’s campaign officially ushered in the Age of Ignorance in American politics. Four years on, making baseless incendiary remarks, lying blithely about one’s opponent, not to mention misinterpreting a famous JFK speech about the separation between church and state, and saying, as Mr. Santorum recently did, that it made him want to “throw up” is, sadly for the American public, standard fare.
Ms. Palin didn’t invent this orgy of malicious, content-free ignorance, but no one more engagingly embodied it than she did, with her slim skirts, high heels and cheeky American cheerleader way.
This was a candidate for the second highest office in the land who, according to this movie (and other independent reports), not only did not know why North and South Korea were separate countries, but was so historically challenged that her “foreign policy advisers” sat her down with a map and started with “this is Germany, the primary antagonist in both world wars.”
Ms. Moore as Ms. Palin calls these sessions “flippin’ awesome,” but then they begin to stress her out, and instead of carefully preparing, she flubs, postures, lies and winks her way through most public appearances. And she has pretty well been doing that ever since, give or take a mega best-selling autobiography and what seem like a million tweets.
The movie gives Ms. Palin her due as a fantastic campaigner, but doesn’t focus in any serious way on her spotty political record, her evangelically based anti-abortion, anti-environmental beliefs or her unethical behaviour in office.
What it does do, though, is deliciously skewer those boys in the backroom who really thought, as American feminist Katha Pollitt put it, that they could shore up [Senator John]McCain’s campaign with “a shot of estrogen and some right-wing Christian fairy dust.”
It is those boys, who go limp as they realize, sweat pouring down their faces, that the “hottest governor in the land” candidate is a few history lessons short of a textbook (one she didn’t try to ban, that is).
They tried to keep this news from their boss. “I haven’t even told him that she doesn’t know anything,” moans Woody Harrelson as senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, while they accuse each other of failing to vet her properly.
As the book and now the movie documents, while this campaign disaster unfolded, these mostly male strategists defensively went even more sexist, deciding Ms. Palin was mentally unstable, a demanding diva, and a postpartum mess. They even, according to the movie, brought in a doctor to “observe her.” He tells them: “I’d say for a woman who’s just had a baby, has a pregnant teenage daughter, and a son in Iraq, she’s not half bad.”
And yet, desperate to win, they still couldn't let go of the belief that Ms. Palin could bag this for them because, says one of them, “she’s the greatest actress in American politics” and all they have to do is give her the right script.
Watching Game Change made me wonder whether Mr. Santorum is this year’s ill-fated pit bull. But it also made me hanker to see another woman try to scale the heights.
One inevitable day, this woman, Democrat or Republican, will end up in the Oval Office. She will be as tough and smart and experienced as Ms. Clinton – now U.S. Secretary of State. And she may even be as likeable and folksy and populist as Ms. Palin. But she will be there because she is worthy of it.
In the meantime, consider this: The backroom boys in the faltering McCain campaign thought that only a woman on the ticket could save them.
They may have unleashed a monster, but they also created a precedent. One that may influence the next vice-presidential choice in a campaign that is still unfolding.