October Issue 2008
The Palin Factor
In the immediate aftermath of the Republican presidential convention in Minneapolis early last month, it seemed as if the Grand Old Party (GOP) had struck gold. It suddenly had a new candidate, one different in any number of ways from John McCain, the veteran senator hamstrung, inter alia, by the perception that he is the very epitome of a Washington insider, given that he has been in the Senate for decades. What’s more, McCain had effectively won the Republican nomination by posing as a maverick, but his efforts thereafter to renege on his handful of relatively liberal positions weren’t winning as much traction as he hoped for: the evangelists, for instance, remained sceptical about his backtracking.
Sarah Palin changed all that. The governor of Alaska benefited, above all, from the element of surprise. McCain was expected to pick one of his former Republican adversaries, such as Mitt Romney, as a running mate. Another likely option was the former Democratic — and now independent — senator Joe Lieberman, a far-right Zionist apologist who had shared Al Gore’s ticket in 2000. Instead, McCain took a punt on Palin. Most Americans had never heard of her, and McCain himself had only met her a couple of times. His campaign managers knew this posed a fairly big risk, and the fact that they were willing to take it suggests a fairly profound level of desperation.
Initially, the risk appeared to pay off. In spades. Not since Geraldine Ferraro in 1988 has either of the main parties offered a mixed-sex ticket, and Palin was intended, in part, to skim off Democratic or undecided voters disenchanted by Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the Democratic nomination. Even more significantly, the choice was meant to galvanise the Christian fundamentalists who had proved crucial to George W. Bush’s two election victories, but whose enthusiasm for McCain was muted at best.
The Republicans ought to have known it would be extremely tricky to have their cake and eat it too — that is, win over the religious far right while hoping to rope in a sizeable proportion of feminists, too. The gamble paid dividends to begin with: grassroots Republican delegates at the convention were so ecstatic about Palin that McCain, who emerged as the undisputed nominee as far back as February, was completely overshadowed. Palin’s speech at the convention, to which McCain’s speechwriters had devoted all their attention for several days, was everything the organisers could have hoped for: an effective mixture of womanly charms and the vicious “Sarah Barracuda” persona Palin has nurtured since she was a schoolgirl.
At the same time, opinion polls suggested that white women were drifting towards the Republicans. That is why for some days it seemed Palin, rather than McCain, was running for president. The impression wasn’t entirely mistaken. In the unfortunate event of a McCain victory on November 4, he will be the oldest man to be elected president of the US. His health hasn’t thus far been much of an issue in the campaign, but he’s been combating skin cancer, and chances of him falling off the twig during his first term are far from small.
That would lead to President Palin, whose claim to administrative experience rests on her former status as the mayor of Wasilla, an Alaskan town that was home to 5,500 souls at the time, and on her gubernatorial incumbency in a peripheral state that, with a population of less than 700,000, is smaller than almost every American city with an international profile.
What’s more, her record in these two roles has been less than salutary. The McCain campaign evidently made little effort to investigate Palin’s background before naming her as the running mate. As the media delved into the uncharted terrain, it turned out that Palin has few qualms about squashing anything that stands in the way of her ambition. What’s more, she’s remarkably intolerant of differences of opinion. Subordinates who disagreed with her soon found themselves out of a job. And there was invariably a personal angle. As in the case of a state trooper whose marriage to Palin’s sister was followed by divorce and a custody battle. Governor Palin wanted the Alaskan police chief to fire the guy; when the police chief resisted, he himself was forced out.
Earlier, during her tenure as the mayor of Wasilla, a local librarian had been dismissed for refusing to countenance the banning of books (although she had to be reinstated following a public outcry). Apparently, Palin’s ire was based on a book titled Daddy’s Roommate, which tries to explain homosexuality to children. A fellow councilwoman found the book completely inoffensive and suggested that Palin read it, but “Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff.” (The councilwoman, Sarah Chase, who served as Palin’s campaign manager during her first run for mayor in 1996, has been quoted as saying: “I’m still proud of Sarah but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”)
The refusal to read a book she wished to ban goes to the crux of the problem with the likes of Palin. Intellectual incuriosity — frequently cited as one of George W. Bush’s biggest shortcomings — is the polite term for this debilitating disease. Deliberate ignorance would be more accurate, given that it arises from a conscious refusal to broaden the mind. The malaise is widespread across the US and explains why so many Americans, despite a plethora of opportunities, are so reluctant to acquaint themselves with the ways of the world. And it’s not just the world beyond American shores that fails to engage their attention: often enough they acknowledge a disdainful lack of interest in anything outside their immediate community, or at best their state.
In many cases this predicament springs in large part from strict adherence to the tenets of a narrow-minded interpretation of faith. During the course of his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama got into trouble for suggesting, in remarks not intended for general public consumption, that too many of his compatriots in small-town America tend, particularly when faced with dire economic circumstances, to cling to God and guns. It was a reasonably accurate assessment, but in areas such as these it’s considered impolitic to be truthful. Obama clumsily backtracked at the time, but the God and guns diagnosis fits Palin like a leotard.
She wields guns like a pro, particularly when shooting moose from helicopters: moose stew and mooseburgers are among her favourite dishes. She’s been skinning moose since she was a kid. During her first overseas trip last year — she didn’t even have a passport before that — she was photographed posing with a gun at a US military base in Kuwait. An early statement from the McCain campaign said that trip also included Iraq, Ireland and Germany — in an effort to counter the impression that her foreign experience adds up to zilch. It subsequently turned out that,no, she didn’t quite make it into Iraq, and that the Ireland leg was essentially a refuelling stopover. But apparently, on a clear day she can gaze across to Siberia from her home. That hardly adds up to diplomatic expertise.
Courtesy the Bush administration, which finds Palin considerably more attractive than McCain (so does everyone else on the face of it, but the reference is to the ideological context), she received what was supposedly a crash course in diplomacy in New York last month, with introductions to a number of international leaders. The latter were carefully screened for US-friendliness: that meant no Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, unfortunately, nor her Russian neighbours. That’s a pity, not least because she and Ahmadinejad could, given the opportunity, have discovered a great deal of common ground. After all, the Iranian president’s views parallel those of American evangelicals in any number of spheres: they share, inter alia, an irrational aversion to homosexuality and a blanket opposition to abortion, even in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Anyhow, her confreres did include the presidents of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Palin is unlikely to forget her encounter with Asif Ali Zardari in a hurry. It was preceded by Sherry Rehman, clearly well tutored in the art of sucking up to potential power, gushing: “And how does one keep looking that good when one is that busy?” Then Zardari walked in, exhibiting as many teeth as is humanly possible outside a dentist’s chair, and told Palin she was gorgeous. “Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you,” he exclaimed. “You’re so nice,” responded Palin. “Thank you.” Zardari didn’t leave it at that. When a member of his entourage requested the two of them to keep shaking hands for the cameras, the president of Pakistan lecherously commented: “If he’s insisting, I might hug.”
At this juncture, Palin would have been well within her rights to wriggle out of the handshake and put her hand to better use, as a defensive weapon. It may have helped if she’d been getting lessons from Condoleezza Rice, who has experience in this sort of behaviour, having warded off the sleazy advances of Shaukat Aziz. Palin’s tutor in realpolitik has, instead, been that old war criminal Henry Kissinger, who once notoriously described power as the ultimate aphrodisiac. That certainly seems true in Zardari’s case. But while his approach may have embarrassed most Pakistanis, it is likely to have reassured the McCain campaign, whose choice of Palin was based in part on her potential seductive appeal to middle-aged rednecks.
This is broadly the same category of the American electorate that finds Palin’s religious fundamentalism irresistible. At the same time, however, some Republican voters might have been put off by revelations about the churches Palin has been associated with — the sort where they speak in tongues, and fervently believe that true believers will be “raptured” away to heaven before the end of the world, which they think is nigh. Palin has been very much a party to bizarre rituals, including one a couple of years ago in which a Kenyan preacher rebukes “witchcraft” for Palin’s sake while she stands “in front of him at the service, head bowed, her hands held by two members of the congregation.”
The same press report describes the preacher as calling “on church members to try to gain footholds in centres of influence, such as politics and the media, and praises Palin” for striving to become the governor of Alaska. In a speech to the church last June, Palin praised the preacher’s “very, very powerful” invocation and thanked him for getting her elected.
There is plenty of other evidence that Palin believes herself to be on a mission from God. Her lack of experience doesn’t bother her, because she expects divine guidance at every step. Should she ever end up as president of the United States, the result would be akin in some ways to a Taliban administration. Although Bush’s delusions, too, extend to the sphere of blind faith, his retinue has included many sceptics: even as Karl Rove was striving successfully to summon up evangelical support for his charge, he was laughing at the fundamentalists behind their back. Palin is unlikely to tolerate any such sacrilege: unelected posts are likely to go to fervent cronies. The American political system boasts a series of built-in checks and balances, but the past eight years have demonstrated that they don’t always work.
On a more secular plane, Palin and her supporters have also demonstrated a tendency towards the most egregious hypocrisy: if Obama had a teenage daughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock, it would have been portrayed as a monumental failing on the part of her parents as well as an abomination unto the Lord. With the slightest hint of family dysfunction, Obama wouldn’t have made it past the first primary. But in the case of Palin’s 17-year-old daughter Bristol, it’s supposed to be commendable proof that the poor child didn’t consider contraception or abortion. Palin herself not long ago apparently bore a child with Down’s syndrome, even though the disorder was detected long before birth. That unfortunate infant will soon have a little niece or nephew to play with, quite possibly in the Rose Garden on Pennsylvania Avenue. Talk about family values.
Partly as a consequence of all the strange facts that emerged in the weeks after her vice-presidential nomination, the Palin effect gradually began to wear off, and McCain re-emerged as the Republican candidate in the wake of the disaster that struck Wall Street, struggling to turn it to his advantage. At the time of writing, he and Obama were neck and neck in opinion polls. The latter’s choice of running mate — veteran Democratic senator Joe Biden — may have been thoroughly uninspiring, but at least it wasn’t recklessly irresponsible. It remains to be seen which way the wind will blow in the weeks that remain before election day.
A woman in charge at the White House would be an excellent idea, but her ambition must be matched by her credentials. Whatever reservations one may have about Hillary Clinton, there is little question she could have carried it off. The same cannot be said for Palin. Even if she can overcome her tendencies towards ignorance, the plethora of prejudices will likely remain. As a vice-president, she could get away with a decorative role. As president, she would be an unmitigated disaster on an unparalleled scale. That one can make this claim towards the end of the Bush presidency speaks for itself.
As Zardari is probably aware, 24 years ago Sarah Palin was runner up in a Miss Alaska pageant. All well-wishers of the US must hope that she will repeat that feat on November 4.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.