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The Sarah Palin Who Might Have Been

Reader Richard sends this comment: I remember corresponding with you when John McCain tapped her as his choice for nominee for Vice-President. As a former Alaskan, I never saw her as the second coming, but like many people (and – I will quickly add – unlike many others)I found the potential story playing itself out […]

Reader Richard sends this comment:

I remember corresponding with you when John McCain tapped her as his choice for nominee for Vice-President. As a former Alaskan, I never saw her as the second coming, but like many people (and – I will quickly add – unlike many others)I found the potential story playing itself out of “Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington” to be very appealing. The person whom I had met a couple of times to spend time with in conversation (Alaska being a one-degree-of-separation state) was engaging, grounded, attentive to others and someone who had clearly and sincerely sought to make the leap from mayor to governor. We told our neighbors here in DC that while they might not agree with her politics, they would love her as a neighbor.

That was then. I’m not saying she’s a bad person, but the person I met was not the celebrity and creature of the knee-jerk Right that she has allowed herself to become. Someone many posts up this thread remarked on how the Limbaugh-Levin phenomenon is pretty simply a business. Our Sarah chose to get into the business instead of doing the more difficult work of ratcheting up her knowledge and experience in order that she could become a more effective influence leader or spokesperson. And tribal warriors of Talk Radio Right and their disciples who have been peppering this thread with dispatches from their basement computers so loudly condemn any criticism of the former Governor that a thinking person wants to simply react in kind. To someone whose first encounter with Palin was on a rainy late winter day at a lunch in Valdez when she was an up and coming mayor of Wasilla, the one-dimensional figure that she has allowed herself to become is one of the minor-key tragedies of our diminished public discourse. Oh, I know. She’s made a ton of money playing Sarah Palin at State Fairs and at B-list political venues, so presumably she’s laughing all the way to the Bank of Phoenix, or wherever it is that she now calls home. But she was once a person who, as an Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission commissioner baked brownies for AOGCC staff on their birthdays, and to take home to their kids to celebrate big events in their families’ lives that she got to know about. She was once a person of grace. To me, what she’s become – and what we all assume that she has become – is a cautionary tale, a case study in what has become of our public conversation as citizens and as neighbors. For which we can thank people like Levin, their counterparts on the Left, and the camp followers of each.

Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. As my longtime readers will remember, I was a big Palin booster when she was first tapped by McCain. I had been to Alaska back in early 2007, and spoken to Republicans who were beside themselves with excitement that she had just defeated the corrupt GOP establishment and become governor. They really loved her, and it was easy to see why.

After McCain named her his running mate, I was shocked by the vicious slanders she endured from many in the media. No need to recount them all here. The thing to remember is that very few of us knew much at all about her when McCain chose her. She was a blank slate onto which most of us projected our hopes and fears. All I really knew about her was how much those Republicans I had met in Alaska loved Palin because she was a true outsider who slew the wily old Republican Establishment dragon. As a conservative who was sick and tired of what Bush and the GOP Washington establishment had done to conservatism, I was eager for someone like her to come to town and shake things up. As for what the Left saw in her, well, this hysterical Washington Post blog post by University of Chicago theologian Wendy Doniger was the one I remember the most from those days. It included this excerpt:

Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman. The Republican party’s cynical calculation that because she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies (and drives them to school! wow!) she speaks for the women of America, and will capture their hearts and their votes, has driven thousands of real women to take to their computers in outrage. She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women.

Ah yes, an elderly Chicago divinity school professor with advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford knows more about the thinking of working-class women than a soccer mom from Wasilla, Alaska. Got it. Doniger wrote that column on September 8, 2008 — less than two weeks after John McCain named Palin his running mate, and less than a week after the country got its first real look at her, in her GOP convention address. That Doniger post captured the contempt and the snottiness with which liberal elites treated Palin.

And yet, when the McCain campaign finally let the press start interviewing Palin about foreign policy and things that vice presidential nominees are supposed to know something about, it quickly became undeniably that she was utterly out of her league. Her first national interviews occurred with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, on September 11 and 12, and were a disaster. Remember this?:

GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?

PALIN: They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.

GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they’re doing in Georgia?

PALIN: Well, I’m giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia.

We cannot repeat the Cold War. We are thankful that, under Reagan, we won the Cold War, without a shot fired, also. We’ve learned lessons from that in our relationship with Russia, previously the Soviet Union. We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relationship with our allies, pressuring, also, helping us to remind Russia that it’s in their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.

GIBSON: Would you favor putting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?

PALIN: Ukraine, definitely, yes. Yes, and Georgia.

The subsequent Katie Couric interviews were supposed to be her comeback. They were equally disastrous. She never recovered. I could no longer support her in good faith after that. She was without a doubt unqualified for the job.

Sarah Palin might still have become somebody important in US politics and good for conservatism, had she learned from her experience, gone home, studied, worked hard, and been what Richard once saw: “a person of grace.” But she allowed herself to be ravaged by Conservatism, Inc., and became a creature of conservative talk radio and media. What a shame. As I’ve mentioned here before, I talked to an older black man not long ago about what he and his family lived through under Jim Crow. After hearing his stories, I asked him in all sincerity how in the world he and his siblings withstood it. He said something close to, “Our parents told us never, ever to become the people that our enemies thought we were.”

Sarah Palin became the person Wendy Doniger and her malicious crew thought she was. This is her tragedy, and, I think, a tragedy for American conservatism. I mean that.