The conventions are over, the nominees are no longer presumptive, the general election has begun. Assuming Donald Trump doesn’t back out, the next major campaign event will be the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on Sept. 26—which means the two campaigns are likely starting debate prep right about now. How will Clinton train for an onstage battle with an erratic, hotheaded, know-nothing, spotlight-sucking opponent? We turned to Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan and onetime Sarah Palin impersonator for Joe Biden’s debate prep, to find out. Before there was Donald, there was Sarah.
Seth Stevenson: How did it come about that you played Sarah Palin for Biden’s debate training in 2008?
Jennifer Granholm: I got a call from the campaign saying they wanted me to do it, I think because I was the only, at the time, other female governor with kids. So maybe they thought there would be an ease for me to play that role.
Had you ever done something like that before?
I’d never done it before. But I became a Palintologist. I totally studied her debates in Alaska, she’d had a number of them. My team put together briefing books about her, I watched all the videos of her, read all her position papers past and present. And I got up to speed on McCain’s positions, because she would have to absorb them. You have to embody the character. And you have to respect the character. If you want to play it in an authentic way, you have to respond as they would, taking on the good and the bad of the character.
How method did you get?
I wore my glasses. I tried to dress like I thought she might. I didn’t have her hair. But especially for the final practice runs, I did all that. For the smaller rehearsals you can just wear jeans. But for the actual timed practice debates you are acting like it’s the real thing.
How did the prep sessions work?
We did two or three actual timed debates. But you do a number of sessions leading up to that. So what the team did, they had rented an entire hotel in Delaware and they had basically built out the debate stage to the very inch—including the backing colors, the podia height, everything was mocked up exactly as the debate was going to be so that you can become comfortable as a debater. They give you some topics that they’re going to go over, so during the days you go out and run through that series of topics as your character. Joe Biden would get coached, and I would get coached. And they might come to me and say, “Be a little bit more this way, or that way, or try this answer to see if it throws him.”
Did you try to do her accent?
[Sarah Palin voice] You betcha! I’m not very good at her accent, I’m not Tina Fey, but I certainly tried to capture her accent and folksiness. I tried to be tough when I thought she would be tough and disarming when I thought she would be disarming.
How did Joe Biden respond?
Joe was so utterly delightful. With her, part of the challenge for someone like Joe Biden was he knew so much about policy, and the ways of Washington, and she knew so little, so the challenge was he didn’t want to come across as pedantic. He’s a folksy guy, too. But he couldn’t be talking in acronyms and using Washington speak. We’d try to get him to fall into that trap. Or try to get him to start mansplaining to her. It’s difficult for a man to debate a woman. Joe’s a great debater and great human being so we didn’t catch him much.
Speaking of someone who knows little about policy, do you have any advice for the person who plays Donald Trump in upcoming debate prep?
The big advice for someone playing Trump is you have to truly put yourself in the mind of Donald Trump. You’ve got to recognize and respect the fact that he won all these primaries, and didn’t win them for nothing. He’s got some real positive attributes that people who saw him in debates were attracted to. You can’t take it on as an impression like you’re Jimmy Fallon. You have to be Donald Trump and respect that person. For someone playing that character who actually supports Hillary Clinton, that will be a hard thing, to get into the mindset of him.
What kinds of things might a Trump portrayer have to focus on?
He has turns of phrases that he uses all the time. You have to know how he pivots. But there’s a trove of material to watch. When he’s asked a question he doesn’t know the answer to, how he goes to his stock phrases, how he slides out of answers. You have to memorize his MO. He will tell you that he’s very smart and I’m certain he will be prepared, they’ll have given him briefing books—whether he does the homework or not is another question. I actually still question whether there are gonna be debates, seems like he’s trying to get out of them.
What was the timing of the debate prep in 2008?
I was notified about 3–4 weeks before the prep sessions were going to happen. And the debate prep happened just a couple of weeks before the debate.
So they’re probably picking out a Donald Trump portrayer right now. Who should play him?
I’m ready! But obviously they need a man. Ron Klain will do the debate prep again I would guess, as he did for Joe Biden. I’m sure they’ve got a couple of people in mind. It has to be somebody who can be a good actor.
Does it have to be a politician?
I don’t think it has to be a politician. Politicians know the lay of the land, but you’re right, getting a nonpolitician might be a good idea. Maybe Mark Cuban, now that he’s on board. Get another billionaire.