The abrupt 2008 national-stage appearance of Sarah Palin (and more on that presently) gave me for the first time an opportunity to consider a major political candidate of my own vintage. Sarah Louise Heath was born February 11, 1964, making her roughly 22 months older than me — close enough to qualify as a chronological peer.
Before Palin, I implicitly assumed candidates to high office to possess greater historical memory and geo-political knowledge than me. Here however I was confronted with someone who invited direct comparison, and who in this exercise fared quite poorly. I hardly need defend myself against the charge of arrogance in this instance. Palin made me feel I would need to dust off H.L. Mencken words to craft a fitting description of her. A poltroon? Milquetoast? Chautauqua was one to keep at hand, to be sure. But in all of this was the unfortunate condescension which says more, or at least as much, about the speaker’s character as it does about the spoken’s.
It does matter to me that Sarah Palin made it to age 44 without ever grasping the fact that there is a South Korea and North Korea, and that this is a legacy of post-war geo-political compromises. Her indifference to the world outside Alaska is a product of her fierce loyalty and attachments to place. In any case, Alaska is a destination of choice for the Leaving It All Behind type of person, no? She can be forgiven her parochial character, except of course that her political ambitions now seem to call for something else.
As for her lack of bookish knowledge — this too is attractive to many. Simple folk live chiefly among simple folk. The formally unlearned will help you dig out of the storm, comfort you in your grief, watch your children grow up. One type of person who may be expected to admire Sarah Palin is the ordinary folk who has precious few dealings with the sophisticated, and, when it comes to that, is always the social inferior being sold a bill of goods. Who can blame the common person for mistrust and acrimony when it comes to the polished bullshit of the Academy?
If only Sarah Palin were the honest, plain speaking person she is held to be. Then at least those in agreement with her could reasonably expect to be delivered the goods, as promised. There is good evidence suggesting the sort of President she would be, and it is not encouraging, even if you happen to agree with her.
Let’s begin by noting the means by which she rose so suddenly to prominence in American politics. (This is the “more on that presently” bit.) John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in their book Game Change, explain that the discovery of Palin was the result of campaign manager Rick Davis’s Google search conducted with the keywords Republican women. McCain’s campaign manager was looking for a religious conservative woman and found an interview on YouTube between Charlie Rose and Sarah Palin. This makes Palin not only the first female Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, but perhaps the first Google-sourced one also. It furthermore suggests the niche she was chosen to exploit — the evangelical faith-based niche, to be precise.
The 2012 Sarah Palin will be much more fact- and speaking point-crammed than the 2008 version, and indeed is so already. The country bumpkin will have been mostly engineered out of her “optics,” kept at hand for select occasions only. What is most remarkable about her political history is not her ignorance, but her obsession with loyalty and her vindictiveness when loyalty appears to her insufficient. Her aborted term as Governor shows that vendettas, political purges, abuses of power, and dissembling along the way to skirt the matter of ethics, are features of her political style. Her dirty political alliance with husband and knee-breaker Todd (the subject of Stephen Branchflower’s report, which found Palin “abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.11(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.”) rather suggests that other horrible couple, the Clintons. Remember that you heard it here first.
The surface Palin — bumbling, ever-hopeful, plain speaking, America and gun loving — evokes Ronald Reagan, but in her political style she is much more reminiscent of Richard Nixon. (How uncanny it is, then, that she has come under the tutelage of former Nixon aide Fred Malek.) A power abusing, document hiding paranoic, she is always in a dirty personal fight. Her office in Alaska was routinely set upon the work of disposing of enemies. And when the racket is brought into the open air, as it was with Troopergate, out comes the smiling empty-headed Reaganesque Palin to say that guilt is innocence.
It stands that a certain kind of voter will find much to recommend Palin. She was chosen, and probably well-chosen, for a market. She is the candidate, not so much of the female Republican or even the Conservative per se, but the voter who above all else wills to believe. To believe that tax cuts and less government will yield a powerful America, to believe that folksy goshdarn populism is sufficient to overcome foes at home and abroad, to believe in the surface appearance of things and in what one is told if it is flattering to the ear, to believe that faith will improve the human lot whereas science is to be mistrusted, to believe that deeply political persons can at the same time be rogues and Washington outsiders, and to believe that the sacrifice of a man-god has paid a blood debt and that, as a consequence, death is an illusion and the faithful shall rise again to enjoy life forever and ever, amen.