Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sarah Palin

She was born a day after my birthday in 1964. She was a girl and then a wife and a mother and a councilor, a mayor and a governor of the state of Alaska. By all accounts, her stand against the oil interests in the State of Alaska is as unvarnished a display of political courage as one would find in the history of American politics. Besides that, what do I really know about this woman? Next to nothing. And I always hate talking about things that I don't really know. But the one thing I do know about her, I know with absolute certainty. She is honest. She says what she means, what's in her heart. She says it with little to no consideration of consequence. And this makes her a particularly interesting case study to me in the battle between simplicity and complexity...


We're sitting around the table at a booth in this Toronto restaurant. Prasanna sits next to his lovely girlfriend Kathleen. To her left sits her workmates at the Public Guardian's office -- the darling Aline, and their client "Ben". I sit to his left, completing the circle. The beers on the table have been nursed but they're more empty than full and the company is pleasant. The conversation moves easily as if we were all longtime friends and not new acquaintances...the topics of discussion are the mostly trivial happenings of the entertainment world. And the conversation could move easier still if it weren't for one small detail that seemed ever-present on all of our minds....


Wasilla is a small place. Alaska is pretty far removed from the rest of the world. The Founding Fathers made quite the gamble in putting next to no qualifications for obtaining the most influential office in human history. On the one hand, anyone can be President so we'd better make sure that the person who gets that job is the best person possible. On the other hand, anyone can be President so it can sometimes work out that the person who gets the job was simply the most popular person possible. Warren Harding was popular. Paris Hilton is popular. The Founders gambled that popularity alone would never be enough. No system captures intentions perfectly, and neither does the Electoral College.


"Ben" had just parted our company for his own engagements. It wasn't a sigh of relief or anything so dramatic. He seems like a good guy, obviously intelligent, well-informed. He was also an opera singer. I feel compelled to mention this because I'd never met one before. When he had left, I had a thought in my head but I didn't think to give it voice.

Surprisingly (though not too surprising -- she's pretty bright), it was the lovely Kathleen who expressed what I had been thinking. She said, "You never know how...I mean, whether he was offended or not...by anything we were talking about."

Aline spoke next. "Yeah...well he seemed comfortable. I mean he was participating in the conversation. He wasn't just sitting back and wringing his hands or anything."

They were referring to the occasional topic of gay celebrities that had arisen during our discussion. At one point, I resumed with Kathleen a sometimes heated (and on my part, incredulous) debate over the identity of some closeted gay celebrities (Will Smith!?!). Which, on other occasions, would have taken place without a second's thought save for one small detail in this instance: "Ben" was himself gay.


Sarah Palin announced that she was going to resign as Alaskan Governor effective July 23, 2009 with 18 months left in her mandate.

Adam Nagourney

Some people suggested there was a shrewdness to her gambit. From this view, the announcement, as precipitous as it might have appeared, was part of a considered a grand plan of rehabilitation and preparation that would position her as the strongest possible challenger to
President Obama in 2012.

“This unusual move might be the right move for her to become president of the United States,” said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard who is a fan of Ms. Palin.


But there is plenty of evidence that argues against the idea that this was done with forethought and planning. The rollout was something of a car crash, as even her fans acknowledged. After a jittery and visually discordant announcement at her home, she was forced over the next 48 hours to clarify what she meant with a series of Twitter and Facebook postings. It reached a point where her lawyer warned news organizations against reporting that she was under investigation for something.

David Frum

Sarah Palin said on Friday that her decision to resign as governor had been in the works "for a while" and "after much consideration." In that case, you might wonder why she had not bothered to write out a speech in advance. Instead, the Alaska governor delivered a rambling, angry, and self-pitying statement praising people who do not give up - and then gave up.

rexx1: When she speaks, she doesn't attempt to convey any rational thought, she just says stuff.

IMPULSIVE: She just does things. She conveys a continual and consistent sense that she acts on whims, on impulse. That press conference is the impetus behind these words -- it was so devoid and bereft of any semblance of pre-thought or contemplation or exposition. It left pundits, those for and against her, breathless - she didn't make any sense. Shouldn't that matter? When someone talks for 30 minutes and you still have no idea what they said, doesn't that mean something?

Sheldon Alberts

While allowing the television crews to shoot footage of two of her children -- eight-year-old Piper and one-year-old Trig -- Ms. Palin renewed her complaints that the media refused to respect her family's privacy.

"Most candidates, most public officials get to look into a camera and say, ‘You know, you better leave your hands off my kids.' Well, I haven't been able to say that," she said, "and that double standard that's been applied, that's been a little bit frustrating. These are political shots."

HYPOCRISY: ...So obvious that it needs no commentary. But, again, she doesn't seem to grasp or care to grasp that media access and privacy are conflicting expectations.

Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg

But at another point she invoked a military quotation, misattributing it to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in what seemed to be an effort to wave aside any suggestion that she was abandoning the fight. “He said, ‘We’re not retreating; we are advancing in another direction,’ ” she said. (The remark was actually said by Maj. Gen. Oliver Prince Smith.)

PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL: Everyone wants to sound smart sometimes, everyone would like to seem brighter than they are (especially me!) but sometimes the smartest thing we can do is to know the limits of our own intelligence. To just attribute a quote to someone because they're a recognizable authority figure isn't just a simple mistake, it's disingenuous and dishonest. She could just have as easily said, "A great man once said..." but she wanted credit for knowing who actually said the quote, when in fact she actually didn't. That's something I would expect from a child (or Rod Blagojevich).

Rebecca Sinderbrand and Shirley Hung

"How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country," Palin said in a statement attributed to her on her Facebook page. "And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make. But every American understands what it takes to make a decision because it's right for all, including your family."

OVERSIMPLIFICATION: Jeanne d'Arc left her life as a peasant girl to follow God's voice and lead the French Army. Barack Obama left his term in the Senate after only 4 years of a 6 year term....to be President of the United States. She uses an analogy that seems so seductively relevant at first reading and then, after a moment's thought, it occurs that she missed the key point in her analogy entirely. If you're abandoning one commitment for a 'higher calling' the calling has to be demonstrably higher, and perhaps most importantly, immediate. If I resigned my job as a surgeon mid-procedure because 3 1/2 years from now I wanted to be President, would anyone think twice about calling me 'irresponsible', 'irrational', 'mercurial'? Resigning as governor to be unemployed isn't a more reputable way to serve your state as a public servant.


We had all been thinking the same thing: whether we had been offensive without intending to be, and we hoped that we hadn't been. Aline made the important observation that if we had said something untowards the responsibility for remedying it was not ours alone; "Ben" was free to mention if something seemed callous or unfair. But even as she said it, even as we nodded our heads in assent, I felt that again we were thinking the same unspoken thought. As J.K. Rowling put it "It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends." How free would he have felt to speak out, if we had inadvertently crossed a line? How comfortable would he have felt ruining our pleasant vibe with a note of reproach?

It all seemed so remarkable to me, these little details, details both insignificant and garguatuan. Were we over-analyzing or under-analyzing the night's discussion? Both appeared equally likely.

At last the thought that I was looking for finally shook loose and came to the surface and I said it out loud before I could think better of it: "It's strange," I began, looking at the faces around me. "Like, I mean, it's not just that we didn't want to offend him. It's that offending him is the absolute last thing that anyone here wanted to have done. And despite that, despite how much we didn't want to, that has no bearing on whether or not we did. Our intentions had nothing to do with the reality."

It was a disheartening truth, but it was the truth. It would be nice if wanting to do good was enough but...it isn't.


This is definitively last time that I will make mention of Sarah Palin in this chronicle, because I don't think she deserves more than that. I don't think she's done enough in her life to warrant further examination. But she represents such a delightful extreme. There have been presidents who were figureheads, puppets (Harding). There have been presidents who appeared to be figureheads when they actually called most of the shots (Reagan). And there have been presidents who were figureheads and knew that they were figureheads (W). Sarah Palin is positioning herself to be the first figurehead president to actually run the United States. That is to say, she's looking to be both puppet and puppetmaster. She wants to be Bush without Rove, style without substance, populism without vision. And she has the luxury of believing this will work because she has no idea about all the things that she doesn't know, and she doesn't care. And let's be clear: it isn't that she doesn't care about my insignificant opinion of her...she doesn't care whether or not it's true. She doesn't care whether or not she is in fact ignorant, because complexity is her enemy.

Even as I write this I wring my hands at the prospect that I am falling victim to the very fallacy that I decry: that I am oversimplifying this woman. Maybe there is a mind at work behind those fashionable glasses, a mind that's been underestimated and underused because of the mindless, repetitive drivel that has become the rallying cry of her party (honestly, is anyone in opposition to lower taxes and strong national defense? - use your brains and change the goddamn script). Maybe, given the opportunity, there is a mind there that wonders whether gay people should be treated with the same amount of respect as her child with trisomy 21. But if she has those gifts, she's yet to reveal them. Grown-ups should know that know-what, know-why and know-how are no small matter. You can't "gee-gosh-darn" your way out of the problems that demand the attention of the President of the United States. The world is a complicated place and it should be respected as such, treated with nuance. An interesting contrast comes to mind: Sarah Palin says what people want to hear, and she happens to believe every word. Barack Obama says what people need to hear and he happens to say it better than anyone else. Simplicity and complexity -- if nothing else, 2012 represents a clear choice.

She's honest, earnest and she has the best of intentions. That night, we too, had the best of intentions. But sometimes that isn't enough. It isn't enough to want what's best for your country and seize an opportunity to have the power. It isn't enough to want to be polite and considerate of others. You have to have the gumption, the good ol' fashion sense to make it happen. You have to care about the interface between great things and small, between the remarkable and the mundane. You have to respect both the rule and the exception, the interplay between the simple and the complex. You have to put as much thought into your words as you do in your actions. And if you don't, at the very least, you have to recognize and value those abilities in those around you. Does Sarah Palin?

P.S. Frank Rich


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