The Best Woman?
Don't patronize Sarah Palin.
In The Best Man, the only useful or amusing film—or play—ever to have been set at an American political convention, Gore Vidal presents us with Joe and Mabel Cantwell (Cliff Robertson and Edie Adams in the 1964 movie version), who are a right-wing "family values" couple with a large and grisly brood. The two have the appalling habit of referring to each other as "Papa Bear" and "Mama Bear," and when it seems that Cantwell has the goods on his rival, William Russell, and is sure of the nomination, Mabel exclaims horridly that this means that "Papa Bear and Mama Bear and all of the baby bears are on their way to the White House." Can American cinema boast of a creepier moment? So tense was the casting of the movie that Ronald Reagan was apparently passed over for the role of President Art Hockstader—eventually played by Lee Tracy—on the grounds that he was insufficiently "presidential." In the event, Cantwell's crude attempt to paint his rival as mentally unstable is checked by the counterallegation that during the war he had indulged in gay sex on a military base—in Alaska, as it happens.
Vidal's Cantwell family was a nightmarish cross between the Nixon and McCarthy strains. I partly sympathize with all those who have been trying for a week to paint the former Miss Wasilla as a candidate from (fairly nearby, in Anchorage terms) Manchuria. However, as often as I have forwarded some alarming e-mail about her from a beavering comrade, I have afterward found myself having the sensation of putting my foot where the last stair ought to have been and wasn't. Was she in the Alaska Independence Party? Not really. Did she campaign for Pat Buchanan in 2000? The AP report from 1999 appears to be contradicted by her endorsement of Steve Forbes. (Not great, I agree, but not Buchanan, either.) The most appalling thing I have unearthed so far is the answer that she gave to a questionnaire when she ran for governor in 2006. All candidates were asked "Are you offended by the phrase 'Under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why or why not?" Her response was:
Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers [it's] good enough for me, and I'll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.
The very slight problem with this—because it would truly be awful if Gov. Palin didn't know that the pledge itself dates from only the late 19th century and that the unwonted insertion of the words "under God" was made in the mid-1950s—is that it is somehow funny. And it's also the sort of mistake that many people can imagine themselves making and thus forgive someone else for making.
I could well be wrong, but I think something similar is involved in the attempt to paint the Palin family as if it were Arkansas on ice or Tobacco Road with igloos and Inuit. Very well, she possibly has had her Troopergate and even trailer-park moments. But whom exactly did the Democrats drown in moist applause, for two nights running, in Denver? The most dysfunctional family ever to occupy not the vice-presidential mansion but the executive one. It's hard to imagine that there will be any more unwanted pregnancies or shotgun weddings when or if the Palins move to the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue, whereas with the Clintons, the very thing that made all Bill's friends turn white and pee green was that they made him the president, and he stillwouldn't stop. For me, it is astonishing that the Democrats have been babbling all week as if this point isn't just waiting—indeed begging—to be made in riposte to their "opposition research."
Walter Dean Burnham, one of the country's pre-eminent Marxists, used to attract ridicule back in the 1960s and '70s by saying that Ronald Reagan would one day be president. He based this on various calculations, one of which was what I'll call the attraction-repulsion factor. Previous candidates of the right, from McCarthy to Nixon, indeed, had expressed powerful dislike and resentment of their foes. That can work, up to a point, but the problem is that if you radiate hostility, you also tend to attract it. Reagan didn't radiate it and also didn't attract it. He went on, in a genial enough way, to destroy the Democratic "New Deal" coalition. I don't think Gov. Palin has quite that sort of folksy charisma, but I am still not sure it's entirely wise to patronize her.
Interviewed by Rick Warren at the grotesque Saddleback megachurch a short while ago, Sen. Barack Obama announced that Jesus had died on the cross to redeem him personally. How he knew this he did not say. But it will make it exceedingly difficult for him, or his outriders and apologists, to ridicule Palin for her own ludicrous biblical literalist beliefs. She has inarticulately said that her gubernatorial work would be hampered "if the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with god." Her local shout-and-holler tabernacle apparently believes that Jews can be converted to Jesus and homosexuals can be "cured." I cannot wait to see Obama and Biden explain how this isn't the case or how it's much worse than, and quite different from, Obama's own raving and ranting pastor in Chicago or Biden's lifelong allegiance to the most anti-"choice" church on the planet. The difference, if there is one, is that Palin is probably sincere whereas the Democratic team is almost certainly hypocritical. The same is true of the boring contest over who can be the most populist, and of the positively sinister race to see who can be the most demagogically anti-Washington. With this kind of immaturity right across both tickets, it's insulting to be asked to decide on the basis of experience, let alone "readiness."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Sarah Palin by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.