Sarah's Revenge

By Frum, David | Newsweek, March 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sarah's Revenge


Frum, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Frum

She rose fast, flamed out--then got mad. David Frum on HBO's 'Game Change'--and how Sarah Palin stirred a revolt against Obama's America.

Few things seemed quite so dead in 2008 as the campaign book. The genre--invented by Theodore White during the election of 1960--was pushing 50. In the age of blogs and Twitter, who now would want to read a book about an election whose outcome was already known? Obama won, McCain lost, what more was there to say?

The answer, it turned out, was: all the best stuff.

In their brilliant 2009 book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin succeeded not only in breaking amazing news but also in revealing the characters of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Sarah Palin in a way no previous reportage had managed.

Now the book has been made into a movie for HBO, debuting March 10. The film focuses on one piece of the book: John McCain's do-or-die vice-presidential bet on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The ranks of Palin's fans have thinned since her astounding debut. HBO's Game Change transports us back to that first, fresh moment when national politics was jolted by this charismatic Everywoman newcomer.

"I've got five kids too. And there's something about her--she's talking to me. And nobody talks to me." So says one woman in a sequence of rapid clips of "voter" reaction to Palin's first days on the campaign trail.

"I want to see how handsome my son Trig will be when he's all grown up," says Julianne Moore, playing Palin, as she strokes the face of an adolescent boy with Down syndrome on a campaign rope line.

"We never felt welcome to go anywhere before we saw you give that speech," says the boy's mother.

Interviewed about Palin in a noisy New York City coffeehouse, Moore explains: "I always say about acting: the audience doesn't come to see you, they come to see themselves. So if you're able to give them an experience where they feel: 'Oh, my gosh, that's me, that's my story, they know me!' then you've done your job. And that's what Palin did."

Has there ever been a vice-presidential candidate who excited such feelings?

A friend of mine was once invited onto C-SPAN to talk about his new book--a book not about presidential politics, it's necessary to say. Before asking any questions, host Brian Lamb in his famous deadpan voice announced: "Before we talk about your book--it's vice presidents' week here on C-SPAN, and we'll be showing pictures of former vice presidents and asking what you can tell us about them."

On the screen popped an image of a frock-coated man sporting a walrus mustache. "Who is this?"

My friend squirmed on live TV. "I can't help you there, Brian."

"It's Garret Hobart, President McKinley's running mate in 1896!"

So it went through the roll: Daniel Tompkins and Hannibal Hamlin and John Nance Garner. And those are the guys who actually won.

McCain and Palin lost, and lost badly. Yet Palin survived that defeat to ignite controversy all through the next presidential cycle. Even now, no Republican has more ability to make news than Sarah Palin--including the party's presumed 2012 frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

It was Palin, not Romney, who lit up the show at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The genius of Game Change is that it shows how this particular star was born.

The Sarah Palin of the summer of 2008 was a very different character from the Palin we know today. That Palin may have shared many weaknesses with today's Palin: her emotional fragility and her cavalier attitude to truth. (At one point in the film, she is confronted by the movie's central figure, campaign consultant Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson: "You have got to stop saying to the press things that are blatantly untrue." She responds by asking when Schmidt will put out a press release denying that her husband, Todd, ever belonged to the Alaska Independence Party. …

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