Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Game Unchanged

Calhoun’s Cannons for March 13, 2012

Humans are the only animals who will follow unstable pack leaders
                                                  Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer

            Sarah Palin and John McCain have both said they didn’t intend to watch HBO’s “Game Change,” an account of their run for president and vice president in 2008.  I’m sure they think the made-for-HBO movie would trash them and anyway, who wants to be reminded of  such embarrassments? While the film does hold them to account for their hubris and blind ambition, overall, they are treated with sympathy; players caught in a win-at-all-cost ethos that did not end well.    
            At the time, like most of the nation, I was stunned when Sarah Palin blew out of the north, her clueless optimism and oddly un-political family in tow, and with the first few national speachs, blew McCain’s train off the track and permanently shoved national politics into a lethal mash up: “American Political Idols Dance With The Stars.” 
            Overnight, Palin’s adoring fans overwhelmed the straight talking express, McCain became that-guy-with-Sarah, and Democratic candidate Obama suddenly had his star-power, media-savvy, crowd-stirring, Great Communicator match.  Yes, half the country watched Katy Couric ask Sarah what newspapers she read, saw her draw a blank and said WTF?? 
            But the other half flocked to her rallies, enthralled as she cranked up the dog whistle music.  Suddenly, those too often forgotten or dismissed by the Washington elite were being told that they were the real Americans, their values were the real American values. And they responded with adoration to their self-styled Mama Grizzly. Sarah! Sarah!   Even Tina Fey’s dead-on comic portrayals could get no traction with those crowds to point out the appallingly obvious:  McCain’s an old man, he’s had cancer once, Palin is one heart-beat away from the Presidency.  This woman is not qualified.
            Even Dick Cheney – Dick Cheney! – called the choice “reckless.”
            But Steve Schmidt, McCain’s political strategist “got it” right in the middle of the campaign, if this film is accurate.  The belief that his candidate had to win no matter what drove him and McCain to make that Hail Mary, stunningly reckless gamble on Palin. It was a choice that made a mockery of McCain’s campaign slogan, “ Country First.”  As they would sadly find out, it was always Palin First.
            And that, for me was the most puzzling part of this whole affair.  How self-blind do you have to be to get a phone call out of the blue asking you to run for the second highest office in the land and with nary a qualm say, “You betcha! Sure. I’ll be a great Veep.  Heck, I’d be a great President.  When do we start?” 
            A normal person would say, “Sorry.  I’m not qualified.”  But an egotistical narcissist with no capacity for reality checks would have no problem. Or somebody in the grip of some delusional religious mania: “God told me to run for office.”  Or maybe a cynically ambitious sociopath who knows the American voter can be Elmer Gantried into buying anything.
            Or, perhaps, it was as simple as the L.A. Times television critic, Mary McNamara suggests: “The film, obviously, belong to (Julianne) Moore, who works hard to make Palin not so much fatally ambitious as one of those naturally confident people who believe that confidence and faith are the most important ingredients of success; ability or even competence can be learned on the job.”
            Except when it can’t.
            As the movie makes clear, after trying to educate and fill in Palin’s gaping information void, her handlers finally gave up, realized she was a natural “red-light” actor, and just wrote Cliff Notes scripts for her – talking points, summaries, buzz words and phrases.  Which solved some of the most glaring problems of an extemporaneous Sarah, but sill left her handlers with a serious disconnect: Imagine an unprepared student who just skims the topic and memorizes key points and phrases but who then over reaches and overloads the mashed-up answers into nonsense.  That would go a long way towards explaining Palin’s distinctly odd and incoherent verbal rambles.
            Overall, the film was extraordinarily kind to Palin, showing a plucky woman working hard to do her bit but who was pushed beyond her capabilities and into overwhelm until she finally decides to go rogue and quickly becomes a distraction and then a liability to a campaign heading for the cliff. 
            But the film didn’t bother to do any more than hint at the deeper political problems the McCain/Palin campaign illustrated:  A cynical win-at-all-costs mind set, a philosophically bankrupt political party bereft of any new ideas but determined to cling to power for no other reason than a need to cling to power, and a dangerous conflation of bread and circus entertainment with cynical beltway politics, all tapping into America’s dark dog-whistle, social-values heart. 
            It is the same disease that’s infected the Republican Party’s primary election and the plague will arrive full blown in both political parties come November, all fueled now by unlimited, secret PAC money – Democracy as a fully financed corporate block-buster TV special.   
     Bring on the dancing bears.


Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Wonderful column. In the interest of goose > gander parallelism and sauce for both, may I point out that "narcissist with no capacity for reality checks" also describes the current POTUS (who has been learning on the job as much as Palin would have), and "win-at-all costs mindset" is a pretty fair summation of "the Chicago way"?

Churadogs said...

Patrick, I would suggest that POTUS has a pretty healthy reality-check feed-back loop, despite the bubble. She's called Mrs. Obama, heh-heh. And he's obviously a very, very quick learner.

We'll all have to batten the hatches come November for a Universal Chicago PAC way. Yikes.

Did you see the HBO movie?

Anne R. Allen said...

I don't get HBO, so I wasn't able to see the movie, but the clips I saw suggested Moore would portray her sympathetically. I have known other charming narcissists like Palin who constantly apply for jobs they're not qualified for and then manage to charm their way into doing nothing for a few months before people start to catch on. Then there's some lovely unemployment money and change partners and dance again. The employer--and everybody else--is of course, always at fault. But deep down, they're often terrified the whole time. Don't know if Ms. P feels that terror, but I wonder sometimes, if that smile isn't masking some gritted teeth.

Churadogs said...

Anne, don't know about the gritted teeth. She's sure found her niche as political rogue-y media manipulator extraordinary. Catnip for the 24/7 news cycle boys. Unfortunately, she has done real damage to real people in real time and that's not so entertaining.