Game Change As It Happened: When Tina and Amy Nailed Sarah Palin

After months of promotion HBO's film on Sarah Palin and the 2008 campaign, Game Change, will air (finally) this weekend. Conservatives (including Palin, who has not seen the movie) claim that the film is completely unfair and mainly fiction, plus a valentine to Obama from Democratic Hollywood. But the filmmakers say it's (sadly) all fact, except that Julianne Moore plays Palin even better than Palin played Palin.

The only thing surprising to me is that anyone at this late date would be surprised by any embarrassing facts about Palin. The truth has been known almost within hours of McCain lifting her out of obscurity back at the end of August 2008. There even persists in some quarters (including elements of mainstream media) the fantasy that Palin actually boosted McCain and drew support from women voters, when the facts (and the polls) always ran in the opposite direction.

Rather than in retrospect, I documented all this in real time in my daily pieces for Editor & Publisher, which were collected in my 2009 book and e-book Why Obama Won. This week I will be excerpting parts of that book here, leading up to the HBO film airing, to show how much was known about Palin immediately -- not weeks, months or years later -- and how many in the media distorted this for far too long. Yes, we will be getting to David Brooks.

September 1, 2008
3 New Polls: Palin Pick Not Fooling Women

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll released today shows that the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain -- after the twin "bounces" of the past few days -- remains essentially tied, with Obama leading at 49 percent to 48 percent. But what's most intriguing are the results regarding McCain's choice for veep, who was expected to draw more women to the GOP ticket.

In fact, men seem to be more impressed with this move than women. Just now, this seems to be confirmed by a CBS poll, showing Obama with a 48 percent to 40 percent lead overall -- but with a wide lead among women, at 50 percent to 36 percent which has only widened. Only 13 percent of women said they might be more likely to vote for McCain because of Palin, with 11 percent they are now less likely. CBS also reports: "Before the Democratic convention, McCain enjoyed a twelve-point advantage with independent voters, but now Obama leads among this group 43 percent to 37 percent... The poll shows an increase in the number of Obama voters who are enthusiastic about him."

As for the CNN poll: "Women now appear slightly more likely to vote for Obama than they did a week ago, 53 percent now, compared to 50 percent," reports Keating Holland, CNN's director of polling. "If McCain was hoping to boost his share of the women's vote, it didn't work," he said. And USA Today/Gallup has just released its post-Palin poll showing that Obama has widened his lead from four points to 50 percent-43 percent.

Here is an excerpt from the CNN report: "Is Palin qualified to be president? Fifty percent say she is unqualified to assume the presidency if that becomes necessary; 45 percent say she's prepared for the White House. In recent history, the only running mate to earn less confidence from the public was Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992. "Three quarters of all voters think McCain chose a female running mate specifically because he thought adding a woman to the Republican ticket would help him win in November."

September 17, 2008
A Wider Shade of Palin

It tries to stay ahead of the political curve, but this time Saturday Night Live was a bit behind the times. Its now-famous skit starring returnee Tina Fey as Sarah Palin closed with an especially cutting quip that came from Amy Poehler as Hillary. She advised journalists, clearly referring to the early swooning over Palin, to "grow a pair," and if they couldn't, they ought to borrow a pair from her.

But by then it was clear that, in the main, the mainstream media, for once, had cojones enough to go around.

One would like to think that the determination to vet a previously little-known vice-presidential candidate from an atypical, faraway state would have happened even if Palin and others in the McCain camp hadn't dissed the media at the Republican convention and in the days that followed. Forget the Red/Blue civil war: This was "black and white and Red all over." The McCain forces were saying, "Investigate, my friends, but we do not care what you find, and neither do the American people." It reminds me of Gary Hart daring the media to keep a watch on him for any marital infidelities and... whoops.

It's long been said, "you can't lose by running against the media." Well, I guess we will soon find out about that one.

The early returns suggested, on the contrary, that baiting the media may have backfired for the GOP. McCain lost his comfortable lead over Obama gained during his "bump" from the Palin pick (before the media detective work began). Palin's favorable ratings in some polls had plunged more than twenty percentage points in that span. Numerous headlines stated something along the lines of "Palin Effect Wearing Thin." The lipstick was off the pit bull.

While the national media continued to focus on the folksy "hockey mom" -- now, "grandmom" -- angle, the tough-minded reports in the Alaska press exposed all sorts of ethical shortcomings or uneven performance in office. "Troopergate," Palin's misstatements about that "Bridge to Nowhere," and her (previous) embrace of earmarks had all drawn plenty of coverage back in her home state.

Pundits gave Palin high marks for her error-filled GOP convention speech -- the bar had been set that low -- but behind the scenes, editors and journalists across the Lower 48 were devising plans and itineraries for sleuthing in and out of Alaska. Soon, reports started dribbling and then flowing out, and many of them weren't pretty.

Palin has remained popular among evangelicals and the core GOP faithful, but lost most of her standing with most of the others. And, just possibly, the press -- along with leading blogs -- deserved the lion's share of the credit (or blame, if you will). The voters, apparently, were eager to "keep up with the cojones."

September 25
Putin in Alaskan Airspace?

Sarah Palin is mad at the media for mocking her for declaring, on multiple occasions, that being governor of a state near Russia gives her foreign policy credentials, or so she complains to Katie Couric. So, she repeats it again: "Well, it certainly does because our next door neighbors are foreign countries, they're in the state that I am the executive of." Huh? Also, something to do with Putin "rearing his head" and entering Alaska's "air space." Paging Norad! Soviet missile-in-chief overhead!

September 26
Conservative Columnist Wants Palin to Drop Out

Conservative columnist and TV pundit Kathleen Parker has seen enough. In a surprising post at National Review's site, she calls for Sarah Palin to step aside for the good of the country (and benefit of her family). Parker, who has certainly criticized, even mocked, Obama in the past, writes: "No one hates saying that more than I do. Like so many women, I've been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I've also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.

"If B.S. were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself. If Palin were a man, we'd all be guffawing, just as we do every time Joe Biden tickles the back of his throat with his toes. But because she's a woman -- and the first ever on a Republican presidential ticket -- we are reluctant to say what is painfully true.

"What to do? Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first. Do it for your country."

September 28
Tina Fey Nails -- Shut? -- The McCain Campaign

Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric was damaging enough. Now it's double-your-trouble time with Tina Fey's latest takeoff on Saturday Night Live. Most damaging: the well-publicized fact that many of the lines, and all of the sentiments, in her script were taken, improbably, right from the Couric transcript. So, for posterity, here is some of of it:

AMY POEHLER AS COURIC: "On foreign policy, I want to give you one more chance to explain your claim that you have foreign policy experience based on Alaska's proximity to Russia. What did you mean by that?"

TINA FEY AS PALIN: "Well, Alaska and Russia are only separated by a narrow maritime border. You got Alaska here, this right here is water, and this is Russia. So, we keep an eye on them."

COURIC: "And how do you do that exactly?"

PALIN: "Every morning, when Alaskans wake up, one of the first things they do, is look outside to see if there are any Russians hanging around. And if there are, you gotta go up to them and ask, 'What are you doing here?' and if they can't give you a good reason, it's our responsibility to say, you know, 'Shoo! Get back over there!' "

COURIC: "Senator McCain attempted to shut down his political campaign this week in order to deal with the economic crisis. What's your opinion of this potential 700 billion dollar bailout?"

PALIN: "Like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this. We're saying, 'Hey, why bail out Fanny and Freddie and not me?' But ultimately what the bailout does is, help those that are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy to help... uh... it's gotta be all about job creation, too. Also, too, shoring up our economy and putting Fannie and Freddy back on the right track and so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending... 'cause Barack Obama, y'know... has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans, also, having a dollar value meal at restaurants. That's gonna help. But one in five jobs being created today under the umbrella of job creation. That, you know... Also..."

COURIC: "What lessons have you learned from Iraq and how specifically, would you spread democracy abroad?"

PALIN: "Specifically, we would make every effort possible to spread democracy abroad to those who want it."

COURIC: "Yes, but specifically what would you do?"

PALIN: "We're gonna promote freedom. Usher in democratic values and ideals. And fight terror-loving terrorists."

COURIC: "But again, and not to belabor the point. One specific thing."

PALIN: "Katie, I'd like to use one of my lifelines."

COURIC: "I'm sorry?"

PALIN: "I want to phone a friend."

COURIC: "You don't have any lifelines."

PALIN: "Well in that case I'm gonna just have to get back to ya!"

Greg Mitchell's book "Why Obama Won" is available in both print and as an e-book. Among his other dozen books are "The Campaign of the Century", on Upton Sinclair's wildly influential race for governor of California in 1934 (winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize), and "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady."