Hollywood makes 'game change' into Sarah Palin story

There's a lot of buzz in the political world about "Game Change," the movie version of the 2008 campaign best-seller that premieres next month on HBO.

The book, by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, focused equally on the bitter contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the troubled McCain-Palin ticket that went down to defeat in November '08.

But the movie is about just one topic: Sarah Palin. Director Jay Roach jettisoned most of the book's riveting political story so he could focus on the tumultuous period in which John McCain chose the then-governor of Alaska as his running mate.

Despite a few positive touches, no one will be surprised to learn that "Game Change," the movie, will present an overwhelmingly negative portrait of Palin. Roach -- he also directed the one-sided, pro-Gore "Recount" about the 2000 election -- even goes beyond the book to throw in some new material from his own research. Roach also compressed some events and turned descriptions of conversations into dialogue that may or may not have actually happened.

But put that aside. Why did Hollywood focus on only one-half of "Game Change"? The other half would have made a great movie.

It was certainly the most compelling part of the book, with no end of dramatic moments. The Clinton-Obama version of "Game Change" could have focused on the racially charged effort among white Democrats to stop the first black man with a serious chance of winning their party's presidential nomination.

The alternate "Game Change" could have featured the spectacle of Bill Clinton, the nation's "first black president," doing everything he could, risking his own reputation and place in history, to stop an actual black man from winning the office.

The alternate "Game Change" could have featured white Democratic party elders torn over the Clinton-Obama contest, loyal to Mrs. Clinton yet impressed by Obama's ability to speak "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" (in the infamous words of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid).

And then there was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. What a great role the fiery preacher from Chicago would have made! "Game Change" -- the book -- reported that Obama and his top aides knew all along that Wright would be a problem, and yet did nothing about it until Wright's "Goddamn America" sermon burst into the news.

The alternate "Game Change" could have featured top Clinton aide Harold Ickes' suggestion that the campaign hire a private investigator to probe Obama's connections to Wright. "This guy has been sitting in the church for twenty f--king years," Ickes is quoted in the book as saying. "If you really want to take him down, let's take him f--king down." Screenwriter Danny Strong -- he also worked on "Recount" -- couldn't have written it better himself.

The movie also could have focused on Hillary Clinton's anger at Obama's ability to escape the Wright mess unscathed. "Just imagine, just for fun, if my pastor from Arkansas said the kind of things his pastor said," Clinton told aides, according to the book. "I'm just saying. Just imagine. This race would be over."

Finally, the alternate "Game Change" could have focused on top Clinton strategist Mark Penn, the man who wrote campaign memos questioning Obama's American identity. "Obama's roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited," Penn wrote, before concluding: "I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values."

It could have been an extraordinary look at the troubling issue of race playing out inside a party that takes pride in its civil rights record. The alternate "Game Change" could have been a complex picture of complex people in a complex situation.

And most of all, the alternate "Game Change" would have provided insights into the man who became president of the United States.

But somehow, that movie didn't get made. Instead, HBO decided to focus on an out-of-office, former half-term governor of Alaska who was on the losing ticket in the 2008 election and isn't running for anything today.

Everyone knows that Hollywood, the entertainment industry as a whole, and much of the liberal establishment all suffer from a continuing obsession with Palin. So in the end, it's no surprise HBO turned "Game Change" into a Palin biopic. But in the process, they ignored a historic, compelling and profoundly dramatic story.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.