Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sarah Palin - A Post Mortem


When the news came out of John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, I looked into her bio and was flabbergasted. It seemed to me that of all the people he could have selected, Ms Palin was among the worst possible choices. Then, as the campaign unfolded, that selection contributed in no small part to a sort of black comedy.

Sarah Palin was clearly an attempt by Mr. McCain to lock down the Republican Party's base. He had billed himself as an independent, a posture with potential appeal to the vast number of political moderates whose votes were calculated to be crucial in the election. Yet among hard core conservatives he was, at the least, something of a cypher. With the addition of Governor Palin and the presumably pure, arch conservative values she brought with her, perhaps he thought this would leave him free to go after the moderates.

In some ways the strategy worked. Hard core right wingers rallied around Sarah Palin with a passionate intensity which John McCain could never have invoked. Predictably however, it was Sarah Palin's very strengths which torpedoed any chance he had among moderates. Thrust as she was onto the national stage, her lack of preparation and experience, not to mention sheer knowledge, played directly into the Democratic Party's hands. Democrats had the early lead anyway, and Ms Palin likely lost many more moderates than the number of conservatives she could possibly have retained.

We could probably go back and forth for days on how the media treated, and continues to treat Sarah Palin. No matter. Like it or not, the media live under the same ruthless conditions as does any other enterprise in a free country. What we condemn as unnecessary attacks on a public figure's personal life only happen because that is what sells newspapers. You and I may believe that events at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva are incredibly more important then the passing of a popular rock star, but by in large the public values Michael Jackson's beaded mitten vastly more than unlocking the secrets of the Higgs boson. And so it goes.

This morning I read a rather compassionate summary of the Palin Episode in the New York Times. Now I will admit I was never much of a Sarah Palin fan. In fact, I didn't like her at all. I considered her recent resignation as governor to be the height of hypocrisy and a poor example for anyone contemplating a career in government. Yet as I read the article, I found myself gaining not only a better understanding of this troubled person, but also my own tenets and assumptions. Let me explain.

I've stated repeatedly that both liberals and conservatives have something important to add to the execution of good governance. Yet the combination and cooperation of these two opposing philosophies is never going to work so long as the public continues to buy into the notion that one philosophy is always fruitful and the other is always barren. Our modern day pundits feed on this annoying shortcoming of human nature. To be sure, there are enough conservative fools in public life that I could base an entire career on exposing and mocking them. But much as I hate to admit, liberal fools are in no short supply either. If there is a moral here, it is that if you want to make a living as a pundit, its best to concentrate on only one type of fool or the other. Never both.

Regrettably, government has become the captive of this noxious economic formula. For commentators in today's media, political extremism sells. Fair minded journalism has become as unprofitable as fair minded governance. Thus, tenure in government virtually hinges on a politician's willingness to accept the rules of this game.

Now I'm not writing this post to excuse or absolve Sarah Palin for any of the mistakes she has made since entering into politics. The media has furnished us with a detailed record of her career. You may disagree Steve, but to my mind the facts indicate she was ill prepared to be vice president, much less run for the office.

But one wonders what might have happened if John McCain had just left her alone and selected someone else. The picture of her which emerges is that of a young, energetic person - possessing the same ideological certainty which young people always do - as well as the characteristic habit of overblown self importance which leads to all sorts of abuses of power. She was far from perfect. Moreover her ideologies conflicted with mine almost item for item. This last point really isn't a criticism, since I respect people who, much like yourself, come honestly to the condition of being wrong.

Perhaps she would have matured and after time brought a worthwhile perspective to national government. Who knows? Instead, she got yanked into the spotlight and fell into the role which right wing pundits quickly designed for her. She became known as McCain's "attack dog". The outcome was depressingly predictable. Along the way, Katie Couric's interview exposed a disturbing lack of comprehension of current affairs. The interview was thereafter represented in right wing journals as an "ambush". To me, nothing better reflects the bizarre logic of her defenders, who ignored the painful uncertainty of her answers to important questions and considered it noteworthy only that a journalist would be rude enough to ask them.

Frankly it is understandable that Ms Palin would be ignorant of several important national and international affairs. She had presided over a state with a population approximately one tenth the size of metro Atlanta, with needs and concerns which were strikingly different from those in the lower 48. Yet while this lack of knowledge had little to do with her ability to run a state, it had everything to do with running a country. So now we arrive at the crux of this post...

My view is that those who genuinely supported Sarah Palin's candidacy did so out of her perceived adherence to a particularly clear set of values. This reasoning rests on the assumption that in governance, ideology is more important than intellect. This stands in stark contrast to private industry, where it can be assumed we all want the most experienced and competent people to run those businesses we work for or hold stock in. But opinion makers tell us otherwise. The liberal will believe that a complete dunderhead will make a better senator, so long as he is liberal, than a conservative who graduated magna cum laude. And vice verse. And it looks for all the world to me that Sarah Palin has bought into this weird logic, hook, line and sinker. I find this to be rather sad.

My guess is that Sarah Palin will now depart on a career very different from that which she was pursuing before John McCain's interruption. Her account of the reasons why she resigned have largely been rambling, inconsistent and incoherent. Most observers in the press, including many thoughtful conservatives, have condemned her for it. I myself am inclined to be more generous. In my view she was lifted from the relatively peaceful backwater of Alaskan politics and placed, along with her husband and family, under the merciless glare of public scrutiny. Every fender bender became a seven car pile up, every blemish became a compelling disfigurement. My goodness, after Ken Starr finished investigating every hinge, joint and surface of Bill Clinton's personal life, I remember concluding it would be a rare person indeed who could not be made to appear as a fiend, provided one had 60 million dollars to spend on the endeavor. It makes perfect sense to me that Ms Palin simply got fed up with the whole thing.

Her exit from Alaskan politics was not graceful. I wish she had been more honest about it. All she had to do was say, "Look, I'm sick and tired of this. I've got bills to pay and kids to raise. And I can make about a hundred times more money writing books and appearing on Fox News than I can as a governor of this flop joint. Let somebody else take the job and furnish target practice for every two bit writer from here to Halibut Cove. I'm outta here...". Now that's a resignation speech I could cheer for!


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