The real bias in ‘Game Change’

Published 1:45 pm Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Several critics, most of them conservatives, have complained that “Game Change,” the HBO movie made from the best-selling 2008 presidential campaign book, portrays Sarah Palin as profoundly stupid. Indeed it does.

Those critics have also complained that the picture portrays John McCain and his top advisers as deeply craven. It does that, too.

In “Game Change,” there’s lots 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.

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But perhaps the strongest bias in “Game Change” is not about any particular politician. 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.

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.”

Later, McCain’s resolve is tested as he falls 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.

McCain concedes that Wright had said inflammatory things. “But there’s a dark side to American populism,” McCain tells his aides. “Some people win elections by tapping into it. I’m not one of those people.”

“Okay, so what about Bill Ayers?” Davis 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, accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” 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!”

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 a report of that, from the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who said he heard it at an event in Florida, and 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 Oct. 16, 2008. “If it says it doesn’t think anyone shouted ‘kill him,’ it’s a good bet that it didn’t happen.”

That’s not to say that a few people didn’t yell insults at McCain-Palin rallies. In “Game Change,” the book, 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, but the authors stuck to what they knew. And of course, anyone could go to lots of McCain-Palin events and never see or hear anything of the sort.

To hear the moviemakers 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.

(Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.)