The real bias of 'Game Change'

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Several critics, most of them conservatives, have complained that Game Change, the new HBO movie made from the best-selling 2008 presidential campaign book, portrays Sarah Palin as profoundly stupid.  And it does.  Those critics have also complained that the picture sometimes portrays John McCain and his top advisers as deeply craven.  It does that, too. And then there's the fact that Game Change, the movie, focuses on a negative portrayal of Palin while ignoring the dramatic and divisive primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that made up the biggest part of the book.  So there's a lot of bias to go around -- not a surprise in a picture made by the same Hollywood writer-and-director team that produced Recount, the pro-Gore HBO version of the 2000 election.

But perhaps the strongest bias in Game Change is not about any particular politician, or even its choice of characters.  At its core, the movie's message is that the Republican base is filled with hatred, racism, and xenophobia.  In Game Change, the McCain-Palin decision to attack Obama for his ties to the former 1960s radical Bill Ayers -- even as the GOP ticket stayed away from Obama's relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- brings out the ugliness in the hearts of Republican voters.  And those Republican voters are truly awful people.

In the movie, McCain is portrayed at his best when he rejects the suggestion from some aides to tie Obama to the fiery minister best known for his "Goddamn America!" declaration.  "John, if there ever was a time to run a Rev. Wright ad, this is that time," McCain adman Fred Davis tells McCain in a scene early in the movie.  "It's the single best weapon we've got."

"I'm going to run a f--king campaign that my kids can be proud of," McCain answers angrily.  "And that precludes attacking a black reverend."

So it didn't happen.  Later, McCain's resolve is tested as he falls farther and farther behind Obama in the polls.  "We've got to make this about Obama," campaign manager Rick Davis tells McCain in a meeting.  "We've got to get tough, and we've got to get negative."

"If we go this way, Rev. Wright is still the best play we have," adds Davis.

Again, McCain rejects all proposals to bring up Wright. "Any of you ever been accused of having a Negro child out of wedlock because your adopted daughter was born in Bangladesh?" he asks the advisers.  "And then, when she was 16 and Googled her name, I had to explain to her why President Bush's henchmen called her a bastard when she was 10 years old."  (The moviemakers are referring to unsubstantiated stories from the 2000 South Carolina primary in which McCain accused George W. Bush of dirty campaigning. I wrote a long piece for National Review on the lack of evidence for such claims; it's not available online, but an excerpt is here.)

As the scene plays out, Davis tries to humor McCain.  "South Carolina, that was an ugly primary, but this isn't the same thing," Davis says.  "I mean, Rev. Wright really did say those things."

"That may be true," McCain answers.  "But there's a dark side to American populism.  Some people win elections by tapping into it.  I'm not one of those people."

Rejected, Davis tries Plan B.  "Okay, so what about Bill Ayers?" he asks.  "Obama began his career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.  Domestic terrorist -- nothing to do with race."

McCain thinks for a moment.  "Okay," he says.  "Ayers is fair."

So the campaign goes after Ayers, with Palin playing the lead role.  As the movie portrays her accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists," Palin adds that she is "just so fearful this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America."

That's when the hatred in the Republican masses is unleashed. "He's not a Christian!" one person yells.  "He's a socialist!" screams another before Palin leads the crowd in a chant of "USA! USA! USA!"  And it's not just the Republican hoi polloi; Palin gets a similar reaction from a well-dressed crowd at a swanky GOP gathering.

A moment later, McCain is on the stump, asking "Who is the real Barack Obama?" "A terrorist!" someone yells.  Another shouts, "He's a Muslim!" "He's a socialist!" says still another.  And more: "He doesn't represent us!"  "He hangs out with people who hate our country!" "Send him back to Africa!"

And finally, the awful climax: "Kill him!"

"We've got to tone the rhetoric down," top campaign aide Steve Schmidt tells a stunned and depressed McCain..  "It's gotten out of control.  You can't even mention Obama's name any more.  The crowd gets too hot."

"This isn't the campaign I wanted to run," McCain says sadly.  The movie portrays him trying to tamp down the hatred, but it's too late.

Here's a question.  Did anyone yell "Kill him!" at a McCain-Palin rally?  There was one report of that, from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who said he heard it at an event in Florida.  There was also a local reporter in Pennsylvania who said he heard it at an event in Scranton.  But the Secret Service, whose agents were present at the rallies and were charged with protecting candidate Obama as well as McCain and Palin, investigated both allegations and found no evidence that either outburst actually occurred.  "The Secret Service takes this sort of thing very, very seriously," noted the liberal web publication Salon on October 16, 2008.  "If it says it doesn't think anyone shouted 'kill him,' it's a good bet that it didn't happen."  The outburst portrayed in Game Change as the very essence of the hatred in Republican hearts -- well, there's no good evidence it ever happened.

Certainly it's not included in the book Game Change, on which the movie is mostly based.  That's not to say that a few people didn't yell insults at McCain-Palin rallies.  Game Change authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann wrote, "At rallies across the country, there were jagged outbursts of rage and accusations of sedition hurled at Obama.  In Pennsylvania and New Mexico, McCain audience members were captured on video and audio calling the Democrat a 'terrorist.'  In Wisconsin, Obama was reviled as a 'hooligan' and a 'socialist.'"  There were rumors and stories of all sorts of things being yelled at the rallies; the authors stuck to what they knew.  And of course, one could go to bunches of McCain-Palin events and never see or hear anything of the sort.

But that's not a story the moviemakers wanted to tell.  To hear them tell it, Game Change is a scrupulously fair account of the Republican side of the 2008 campaign. "It has a very evenhanded tone to it," director Jay Roach said recently.  There's no reason to think they don't believe that -- but it doesn't make it true.

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