Sarah Palin's brand of populism is dangerous and deceptive.
Writing about Sarah Palin in Newsweek last month, I pointed out the crude way in which she tried to Teflon-ize herself when allegations of weird political extremism were made against her. Thus, she had once gone to a Pat Buchanan rally wearing a pro-Buchanan button, but only because she thought it was the polite thing to do. She and her husband had both attended meetings of the Alaskan Independence Party—he as a member—but its name, she later tried to claim, only meant "independent." (The AIP is a straightforward secessionist party.) She didn't disbelieve all the evidence for evolution, only some of it. She hadn't exactly said that God was on our side in Iraq, only that God and the United States were on the same side. She says that she left Hawaii Pacific College after only one year because the climate was too sunny for an Alaskan *; her father (whom she considers practically infallible) tells her most recent biographers that she quit because of the preponderance of Asian and Pacific islanders: "They were a minority type thing and it wasn't glamorous. So she came home." And so on. As I tried to summarize the repeated tactic:
So there it is: anti-Washington except that she thirsts for it, and close enough (and also far enough away to be "deniable") to the paranoid fringe element who darkly suggest that our president is a Kenyan communist.
Last week, the new darling of the right did her best to vindicate me. She appeared on the radio show of a certain Rusty Humphries, another steaming and hearty slice of good-old U.S. prime, and was asked whether she would make an issue of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. Her response: "I think the public rightfully is still making it an issue. I think it's a fair question." That was on Thursday, Dec. 3. On Friday, she had published a second "thought" on her Facebook page, reassuring all and sundry that: "At no point have I asked the president to produce his birth certificate, or suggested that he was not born in the United States."
Well, exactly. Of course she hasn't. She just thinks it's a good idea for others to do that, in their "rightful" way, since, after all, it is "a fair question."
Could anything be more cowardly and contemptible? Alexander Pope came up with a few lines about this sort of second-hand, third-rate innuendo-mongering:
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings:
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys
Yet wit ne'er tastes and beauty ne'er enjoys.
So well-bred spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.
What price the courageous frontier huntress now—an empty-headed echo chamber for rumor-mongers and freaks who shoots from ambush and then runs away? Some condescending right-wing intellectuals are calling her style "populist" and comparing it with Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. The true name for it is demagogy, descending from Joseph McCarthy, Robert Welch, and the nastier elements of the old Nixon gang—people to whom slander and defamation was second nature.
I think I can guess why Palin moved so quickly to soften her raw-meat appeal to Rusty's crowd. On Saturday night, she was due to put on a black dress and be a featured guest at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C. It was time to don the fake finery of wit and beauty again. (I do hope this isn't why the press, which gives this annual gala, went so utterly soft on her "birther" garbage over the course of last weekend.) The person who has been introducing Palin into the more exalted social and political circles of the capital, and who has already arranged her appearance at the Alfalfa Club, is Fred Malek. Two things about Malek are worth bearing in mind.
The first is that he was an important member of the Nixon administration, a senior figure on the Republican National Committee, and the campaign manager for the re-election of George H.W. Bush in 1992. With his Carlyle Group and other corporate connections and his mansion in suburban McLean, Va., * Malek is almost the prototypical "establishment" Washington insider and consiglieri Republican, against whom Palin's adoring book-tour crowds, in their pathetic dreams, imagine her to be a crusader. But her preposterous book Going Rogue is larded with praise for the wise support and advice of this leathery old Beltway bandit. Populism? Hah! Unless, that is, you count Jew-baiting as a form of populism, which I suppose in a way it is. (Bryan, that other foe of Darwin, was also a fan of the Klan.)
Because the second thing to note about Malek is that he was the man who drew up a list of Jews to be fired from the civil service under the Nixon administration. I am surprised that so many people have allowed themselves to forget this—and that Palin has never been asked a single question about it. In the early 1970s, Nixon, whose White House tapes show consistent evidence of anti-Semitic paranoia, gave orders that the Bureau of Labor Statistics be purged of what he called a "Jewish cabal." The job of drawing up the list was given to Malek, whose information led to what was called the "reassignment" of some officials within the Labor Department. Malek later tried to give a weaselly excuse for his conduct, but was caught by my Slate colleague Timothy Noah.
It beats me why such a disgusting character is still received in polite circles, except that now at least he's back doing the sort of task to which he is best-suited. He has found an unscrupulous and uncultured political neophyte who will happily act as a megaphone for any kind of libel and insinuation—Obama's "palling around with terrorists" was, I suppose, the money shot of the last campaign—and then later revise and extend her remarks. Nasty work if you can get it. Malek, now so near old age, must be pinching himself at his good fortune.
At least Richard Nixon had the ill fortune to look like what he was: a haunted scoundrel and repressed psychopath. Whereas the usefulness of Sarah Palin to the right-wing party managers is that she combines a certain knowingness with a feigned innocence and a still-palpable blush of sex. But she should take care to read her Alexander Pope: That bloom will soon enough fade, and it will fade really quickly if she uses it to prostitute herself to the Nixonites on one day and then to cock-tease the rabble on the next.
Correction, Dec. 7, 2009: This article originally misspelled the Virginia suburb of McLean. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Dec. 8, 2009: This article originally misstated that Sarah Palin attended the University of Hawaii. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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 Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.