Game Change, the HBO movie that debuted on Saturday night, is most valuable not for what it says about Sarah Palin in 2008, but for what it says about the fatuous celebrity culture that sustains her in 2012.Granted, the film is perversely fascinating on its own terms; as a dramatization of the desperate and dysfunctional John McCain campaign, it’s scarier than any flick with Freddy Krueger. Clearly, the supposedly smartest strategists in the GOP had no clue what they were doing. After a mere five days of vetting – a process that typically requires four to eight weeks – they signed off on someone who knew less about world affairs than your average middle school slacker. (She thought the queen of England governed England; she didn’t know why there was a North and South Korea.) They only belatedly realized that the woman they sought to put one heartbeat away from the presidency was, in point of fact, a semi-ignorant megalomaniac. But, hey, they were merely reflecting the spirit of their boss; as strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) remarked, “Sen. McCain is a fly-by- the-seat-of-the-pants kind of guy.”And as I wrote in the fall of 2008: “The rise of Sarah Palin inevitably prompts me to ponder the demise of meritocracy in America. Never mind the fact that her presidential readiness is measured by the proximity of Alaska to Russia, or the fact that the McCain camp listed Ireland as one of her foreign visits until it turned out that her plane had merely refueled on Irish soil….In America these days, we award everyone for merit, from the brilliant to the mediocre. Just as in Little League, everyone gets a trophy. It’s the ultimate in populist democratization. (Palin is) the latest beneficiary in the national celebration of mediocrity, much like one of those early-round American Idol entrants who wins insta-fame for being Just Like Us.”And that’s why she’s still with us today. In the last scene in the film, a McCain strategist sifts the ashes of election night and predicts that within 48 hours, “nobody will even remember who she is.” How naive. Populist culture, propelled by worship of celebrity and Just Like Us mediocrity, has sustained Palin in all the years since. Heck, HBO could have extracted any number of movies from the Game Change book – the rise and fall of John and Elizabeth Edwards, for instance – but it focused solely on the Palin chapters precisely because she still fascinates and/or exasperates today.Yes, her political career – running for office, standing before the voters – is essentially over. Even if she refuses to acknowledge to herself that she’s woefully over her head in the national realm, her hesitance to fully engage in Republican politics suggests some level of cognitive awareness. Republican primary voters, to their credit, have already jettisoned several ill-informed and fact-challenged candidates (Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain) – a signal, perhaps, that actual knowledge matters more than glitz.Her fundraising arm, SarahPAC, currently has $1 million in the kitty – chump change, by current standards. Her public pronouncements – the ’09 lie about “death panels” (delivered via Facebook); the ’11 lie about Paul Revere; the ’12 semi-endorsement of Newt Gingrich, urging voters to back Newt and “rage against the machine” (delivered via Fox News) – surface ever so sporadically…and then she’s gone again, off somewhere counting her money. As Steve Schmidt (the real one, not Harrelson) said of Palin earlier today, on the Morning Joe show, “All her deficiencies of knowledge – she hasn’t done one thing to rectify them.” Rather, she dwells only in some quasi-pop celebrity realm, sort of like Donald Trump with even better hair. We should be thankful that things are not far worse. Christopher Lamb, a communications professor at the College of Charleston and author of a new Palin book, contended the other day that Palin is akin to Joe McCarthy, the infamous 1950s exploiter of anti-communist hysteria. He wrote that Palin, like McCarthy, is uniquely adept at tapping “the sound and fury of the far right,” and giving voice to nativism, jingoism, and anti-intellectualism. He wrote: “Palin, like other demagogues on the right, thrives among the ignorant and fearful. If fear doesn’t exist, she creates it. If it does exist, she exploits it.”But Joe McCarthy was a titanic Washington figure who scandalously hounded thousands of people – forcing some to commit suicide – from his perch on a powerful U.S. Senate committee. Palin is no McCarthy; the only way she gets to the Senate is with a visitor’s pass. As the Steve Schmidt character remarked in the HBO movie, news has been devalued in our 24/7 culture to the point where “it’s just entertainment.” Fortunately for us, Palin is little more than a niche entertainer, today and tomorrow.——-
Meanwhile, happy birthday to Mitt Romney! If we were electing a guy only on the basis of how good he looks at age 65, he’d rightly win in a landslide.
——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1