I’m not sure what I was expecting when I tuned into “Game Change,” the HBO movie that chronicles Sarah Palin’s rise from political obscurity to a place on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket. But I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would identify with any of the main characters.
How could a nerdy, left-leaning newspaper columnist see himself in John McCain, the war hero and political maverick who tapped Palin to be his running mate, much less in a conservative icon such as Palin herself?
But “Game Change” is only nominally about larger-than-life politicians; it could have just as easily been a movie about Democrats, or newspaper editors, or members of a neighborhood block club.
I’ve known smart people affiliated with all three of those groups. And “Game Change,” which explores how smart people make dumb decisions, is a movie for all of us.
John McCain is not stupid. Neither are Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist for McCain’s 2008 campaign, or Palin, the Alaska governor McCain and Schmidt plucked from obscurity in an ill-conceived effort to reinvigorate McCain’s foundering presidential bid.
What Palin was — like millions of other smart, attractive, reasonably charismatic Americans — was utterly unprepared to become the leader of the free world.
This was, to McCain’s credit, the weakness about which he appears to have been most concerned in the days leading up to Palin’s anointment.
“Is she ready to be president?” he asks A.B. Culvahouse Jr., the man the McCain campaign asked to vet Palin in about one-tenth the time it allotted to evaluate better known politicians such as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
“I don’t think she’ll be ready on Jan. 20,” Culvahouse replies candidly, adding that Palin probably “has the smarts to get there eventually.”
There can be little doubt that Palin herself would have agreed with that assessment, even before a series of disastrous one-on-one interviews exposed the gaping holes in her administrative experience and grasp of high school civics.
So why did neither of these canny politicians so much as hesitate before this reddest of red flags?
In his 2011 best-seller, “The Social Animal,” author David Brooks argues that neurologists, psychologists, economists and others who study human decision-making have been converging for decades on one, central truth: Human beings — men and women, Republicans and Democrats, parents and children, advanced-degree holders and high school dropouts — are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.
Because what we commonly call intelligence occurs only in the realm of consciousness, it follows that even smart people like McCain and Palin (or, if you prefer, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs) are at the mercy of the same unconscious instincts, drives and distortions as the rest of us.
This is what “Game Change” is really about, even if the producers thought they were making a movie about presidential politics.
When McCain ignored his trusted adviser’s frank admission that Palin could not be ready to assume the burdens of the presidency by Inauguration Day, he was demonstrating a nearly universal tendency to discount evidence that runs counter to a deeply held desire — in the instance of Palin’s selection, his appetite for a bold stroke that would change the dynamic of the campaign.
When Palin expressed confidence that a few weeks spent cramming with index cards could replicate the expertise and experience other politicians had spent decades to acquire, she was mimicking the majority of U.S. college students who reliably overestimate their own proficiency on achievement tests (and underestimate that of better-prepared peers.)
And when Schmidt and other McCain advisers overtly acknowledged the folly of their selection but persisted in a doomed campaign to conceal Palin’s deficits rather than confront them, they were exhibiting a capacity for denial and rationalization with which any decision-maker over the age of 7 is familiar.
Ultimately, “Game Change” is a movie about the emotional booby traps to which all of us are prone. If you missed its premier last weekend, watch one of the encore broadcasts that continue to air most nights on one or more of the HBO stations, preferably with a partner, colleague or teenage child.
Did I mention that it’s entertaining? It is.
But mostly, it’s a humbling textbook lesson in human frailty. And if you’ve participated in a group decision-making process and fail to recognize yourself in the flailings of McCain, Palin and Schmidt — well, you probably ought to look harder.
• Dickerson is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.