"Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," Henry Kissinger once said. That line is usually trotted out every time it becomes necessary to explain the appeal of an aging statesman to an alluring intern, but in Game Change, HBO's new docudrama about McCain-Palin ticket, the aphrodisiac of power is all internal.
Although Sarah Palin's name is now virtually synonymous with vacuous grabs for power, Game Change seems more about her in hype than actuality. The narrative of Game Change is one as old as government itself -- the corrupting influence of proximity to power on even the best of men, in this instance, John McCain.
Game Change begins showing dual deliberations within the McCain campaign. Polls have McCain lagging consistently behind Obama, whose personal magnetism McCain is having difficulty competing with. His advisors know they need a "game changer" and devise two possibilities: fomenting suspicion over Obama's ties to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, or picking an attention-grabbing running mate.
"I want to run a campaign my grandchildren can be proud of," McCain tells his advisors when they recommend the Ayers and Wright strategy. "I don't want to win like that." But when the advisors sketch him a path to the White House through women and very conservative voters with Palin as his running mate, McCain is more willing to consider. "Vet her" -- he tells them.
"Do you think she's ready to be president of the United States of America?" one cautious advisor asks after Palin has been given a cursory vet and approval. You can see it flicker across McCain's face before he replies -- a longing so deep and personal to lead a country he has loved and served in so many ways, that it's hard to blame him for the nod he finally gives. McCain is unimpressed by celebrity and glitz, and yet it is the lack of gravitas he assigns these qualities that makes him so unwilling to let his chance at the presidency slip away.
And it is sense of the cruelty of timing that makes McCain such a heartbreaking character, so empathetic even in the moments when he chooses Palin knowing virtually nothing about her. The groupthink of the McCain campaign as the numbers were slipping to Obama was to willfully forget that Palin wasn't ready for prime time, and that the seriousness of this was compounded by McCain's age. "She would be one 72-year-old heartbeat from the presidency," was a common refrain in the fall of 2008, and it is ironically this specter of mortality that compels McCain to pick an unprepared woman so as not to let a lifelong and heartfelt dream slip away.
Some may delight in re-living Palin's ineptitudes, but there is very little joy in watching her scramble to understand the alliances of World War II or the basic function of the Federal Reserve. Curled up in a terrycloth robe with notecards scattered around her, Palin reminds us of no one so much as Britney Spears, stumbling into a zeitgeist that was waiting for her, floating before screaming fans on the vainglorious illusion that adoration need not be earned, simply existing is enough. She seems an agent-less vessel, replaceable and replicable, a foil against the reserved statesman whose bona fides are not enough to compete with the glamour of his rival, then-Senator Obama.
As McCain's substance and Palin's style are thrown into sharper relief during the fall months of the campaign, slipping poll numbers compel McCain into territory he is clearly uncomfortable with. His strategists, along with Palin, urge him to come out swinging on Obama's associations with Ayers and Wright. "There is a dark undercurrent to American politics, and I don't want to win by tapping into it, " McCain says, alluding the racially tinged smears that cost him the South Carolina primary in 2000.
His advisors agree to leave the Wright issue alone, but convince him that his Obama's connections to Ayers are legitimate grounds for criticism. McCain sees what he wants to see, and gives the okay to unleash Sarah Barracuda. In a montage of late-October scenes, McCain stands behind the lectern, pounding his fist and attacking Obama personally and viciously, as the crowds responds with chants of "Socialist!" and "Kill him!" McCain is clearly unmoored and uncomfortable with the vitriol and rage he has tapped into.
"I just don't trust Obama," a woman splutters to McCain a few days before the election. "I don't think he's a Christian at all, I think he's an -- Arab!" She spits out, like it's the worst thing she can think of.
"No, ma'am," McCain shakes his head, slowly backing away. "He's a Christian family man who loves this country too, we just have different ideas about how to run it. That's all this election should be about."
We know how the story ends. Game Change shows McCain at his concession speech, in the midst of a sea of fans chanting Palin's name, his head bowed, his voice steady, yet never appearing more powerful. McCain was not after the aphrodisiac high flowing through channels of power that Sarah Palin sought and continues to seek. Whatever pride and ego may have accompanied his quest, he sought simply to serve a country he loved, as he had his whole life.
To the extent that Game Change is about Palin, it is a warning against false heroes, against those that seem too good to be true. Behind Obama's style there was clearly substance, but behind Palin's, power and praise were narcotics. There are many other facets of Game Change worth examination -- sexism, and the role of strategists, to name two -- but what makes it a compelling story rather than an anthropological exercise is Senator McCain. The forgotten figure in the 2008 campaign, out-glitzed by his rival and his running mate, deserves to be remembered as he is in Game Change -- a hero, who was even more of one because he was also only human.