"There's an old Greek saying," said Michael Dukakis in the heat of the 1988 campaign in a pointed attack on his opponent George H.W. Bush's boss, Ronald Reagan. "A fish rots from the head first. You know, it starts at the top."
Watching Game Change, I was reminded of that Dukakis-ism and how perfectly it described the mess that was the McCain campaign, led by an incredibly reckless and irresponsible man and politician named John McCain who went about the process of selecting his running mate in a manner that made a mockery of American democracy.
As I detailed in my book, Wild Card: The Promise & Peril of Sarah Palin, and as the film recounts, McCain was absolutely dead-set on picking Joe Lieberman, a man who had been the opposing party's standard bearer, as his running mate. In a desperate attempt to keep that ridiculous decision from happening, equally reckless aides like Steve Schmidt decided to throw away the entire rationale of the McCain campaign by picking an inexperienced political novice from Alaska to be McCain's partner to help point out the Democrats incredible recklessness in making an inexperienced political novice from Chicago their party's nominee.
For their part, the makers of Game Change clearly have an axe to grind and it doesn't even take watching the movie to figure this out -- it's all in the selection of the material. When the book upon which the film was first released, I devoured every page, transfixed by authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's riveting portrayals of all that went on behind the scenes of the campaign. But of all the drama that the book contained, why the relatively minor Palin portion was selected for the film, instead of, say, I don't know, the drama of the first serious African-American candidate running for president or the dramatic tension between Obama and Hillary Clinton, is simply beyond comprehension.
Any filmmaker worth his or her salt and missing the desire to hold Palin up for public ridicule (again) would have chosen that dramatic showdown -- complete with Hillary's ex-president Bill injecting himself into the race -- as the basis for a film, but not so here. Watching Palin twist in the media wind again was too much fun for these filmmakers and they made her the star of the show at the expense of showing us the movie that more accurately reflected the greatness of Game Change, the book.
Conservatives may be upset with various details that they believe HBO got wrong in the Palin portrayal, but one detail that the network got right was its portrayal of McCain as a cynical man so devoid of common sense and sincerity and so completely reckless that he would allow himself to be four days away from picking his running mate for the second highest office in the land, still intent on making a ludicrous selection with no serious backup plan, leaving his equally cynical aides to vet Sarah Palin mostly by Google over the span of 72 hours. Neither Sarah Palin nor Barack Obama were ready for the presidency or the vice presidency in 2008, and it is a reflection of the shallow times we live in that our political process produced two inexperienced and untested national candidates at at time when our country needed seasoned leadership.
For all these reasons, Game Change is an indictment, not of Sarah Palin and her shortcomings, but rather of John McCain, who did her no favors by trying to compensate for his many shortcomings by plucking an unripened banana from the tree and then wondering why the banana cream pie didn't taste quite right.
We will never know the kind of politician Sarah Palin might have become had she sent McCain's call inviting her to Arizona to voice mail and instead served two terms as governor and moved to the U.S. Senate before thinking about the White House, along the way gaining the wisdom and maturity of the kind that turned an actor like Ronald Reagan into a great communicator with great things to communicate.
In the meantime we are left with Game Change, a film designed to make Palin look like a dummy, but which instead, unintentionally, reminds us all through the character of John McCain, of everything we hate about politics and how the American electoral process has been corrupted by cynical, soulless politicians and their acolytes who will do anything to get elected.
Follow Mark Joseph on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markmjm