How can smart people say such dumb things about Sarah Palin?

Military analysis.
Sept. 4 2008 12:03 AM

They've Got To Be Kidding

How can smart people say such dumb things about Sarah Palin?

Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.
Rudy Giuliani

At times like these, I'm relieved that I don't cover elections. There's bum DNA in my heart, and the agita might send me keeling over.

How else to react to the sight of sophisticated people saying, with impressively straight faces, that Sarah Palin is qualified to be vice president—even president—because she's been the mayor of a town of 6,000 residents (the population of Wasilla when she served there in a job that even she admitted was "not rocket science") and the governor of Alaska, which has only 100 times as many people and a legislature that meets a mere 90 days a year?

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is only the most preposterous figure to recite this party line. On ABC TV Wednesday morning, he went so far as to claim that her "executive experience" would have enabled her to handle 9/11 with ease—far more so than Barack Obama or Joe Biden who, he said, have "the least executive experience of any presidential candidate in 100 years."

Well, not quite: John F. Kennedy had no executive experience before running for president. Neither, by the way, has John McCain. By this logic, Palin should top the ticket, with McCain as her No. 2.

More to the point, Giuliani could not possibly believe what he was saying. This is the man who, toward the end of his second and final term as mayor in December 2001, lobbied to repeal the law that barred third terms and, when that failed, tried to persuade Mark Green—who everyone thought was going to be the next mayor—to accept a co-mayoral arrangement, with the two men working side by side, for at least six months.

In other words, this is a man who believed that nobody else, not even a seasoned New York pol, could handle the demands of post-9/11 governance. There are block associations in Manhattan with more people than in Wasilla. There are as many people in Staten Island as in all of Alaska. Giuliani—like most lifelong New Yorkers, a big-city chauvinist—couldn't possibly take someone of her provenance seriously.

I remember, as the Boston Globe's New York bureau chief, interviewing Giuliani in his office at City Hall while the 1996 Republican Convention was going on in San Diego. I asked him why he wasn't there. He said that he didn't go in for that kind of politics, that he had more in common with moderates in both parties than with extremists in either. That was then. I would have figured that, after tanking so disastrously in the GOP primaries—spending $59 million and winning a single delegate for his trouble—Rudy would have given up trying to placate the yahoos and gone back to raking in the big bucks. My guess is he's angling for a job in the McCain administration, either attorney general or director of homeland security. (Watch out!)

It was more flustering still to watch Newt Gingrich reading from the script about Palin's executive experience, especially when it comes to foreign policy. I have disagreed with Gingrich about many things over the years, but he is a serious scholar of diplomatic and military history; he has a strategic mind. And it's truly dismaying to see him beaming at the prospect of someone a heartbeat away from a 72-year-old president who's had cancer—forget everything else about Palin for the moment—who shows no sign of having any knowledge of strategic issues, of ever having cracked a book on the subject, of showing enough curiosity even to travel abroad. (She reportedly acquired her first passport just a year ago.)

Whatever else one thinks of Obama and Biden, they have clearly thought a lot about these issues (in Biden's case, for decades). At committee hearings, their questions tend to go to the heart of the matter (though, admittedly, Biden often takes the long way around). And asking the right questions is the vital first step to making sound decisions. (In the secret tapes that he recorded during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy's knack for doing just that—while his expert advisers flailed about in cliché—was what stood out about him, and what probably saved the world from catastrophe.)

Some of the most hawkish Republican neocons, to their credit, have refused to go along with this charade. Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the Palin appointment "suicidal" because it undermined McCain's argument that Obama lacked experience. David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase "axis of evil," denounced McCain's decision as "cynical" and "risky," and asked, "If it were your decision, and you were putting your country first, would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?"

Their fellow ideologue Frank Gaffney must not have got the memo that dissent was permissible. In an uproarious essay, Gaffney wrote that Palin had learned more about foreign policy than Obama and Biden "by osmosis," because Alaska lies "along the trajectory of ballistic missiles launched eastward out of Stalinist North Korea."

This strikes me as unlikely. I live under the flight path of nearly every domestic flight that lands at LaGuardia and JFK. Yet that random fact doesn't supply me with the slightest wisdom, by osmosis or some other mystical means, about the operations of the airline industry.

As for the equally bizarre claim that Palin knows about foreign policy because Alaska borders Russia, via the Bering Strait, again, I don't get the connection. Has she ever dealt with a Russian? Do the Russians plan to invade Alaska? Or is this another case of learning through osmosis?

Let's get real. If a Democratic candidate had picked such an off-the-wall running mate, the Republicans—Giuliani, Gingrich, and Gaffney among them—would be howling with derision. And rightly so.

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