Friday, October 03, 2008

Celebrity and the Veep Debate

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that Barack Obama scooped McCain and asked Sarah Palin to be his veep. Would she have gone for it?

The point isn't to come to an answer, but to highlight the fundamental vacuity at the center of the Palin phenomenon. This isn't about politics, it's about celebrity. Last night's debate must surely have featured the worst performance by a candidate in the televised era. Admiral Stockdale? Not even close. Sure, he said "who am I? Why am I here?" But it was rhetorical. He went on to give a poor performance by regular adult-sized, pre-reality-show standards. He was quirky and slightly weird. At the end of one answer, he said, "That's -- that's my answer." Sort of crazy-grandpa sounding. But in fact, he was well-versed on the issues, and demonstrated it as he talked about the issues (all domestic, interestingly). By Palin standards, he was a wizard.

By contrast, here's a sample of Palin last night:
"Both [Pakistan and Iran] are extremely dangerous, of course. And as for who coined that central war on terror being in Iraq, it was the Gen. Petraeus and al Qaeda, both leaders there and it's probably the only thing that they're ever going to agree on, but that it was a central war on terror is in Iraq. You don't have to believe me or John McCain on that. I would believe Petraeus and the leader of al Qaeda."
It's just gibberish. More poignantly:
Education credit in American has been in some sense in some of our states just accepted to be a little bit lax and we have got to increase the standards.... We need to make sure that education in either one of our agendas, I think, absolute top of the line.
It was clear she didn't really know her ass from a hole in the ground during vast stretches of the debate. She dimly understood cues in the questions, so that she could offer answers like this one on the credit crisis: "John McCain, in referring to the fundamental of our economy being strong, he was talking to and he was talking about the American workforce. And the American workforce is the greatest in this world, with the ingenuity and the work ethic that is just entrenched in our workforce." She was not speaking from experience here, she was mouthing lines from the campaign.

In this one, wires get crossed; she flubs the line: "It is a crisis. It's a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that's affecting Wall Street." She means Wall Street's affecting Main Street.

Sarah Palin is not a serious politician, she's a celebrity. She does have a mesmerizing quality we're used to seeing on television screens. The cadence of her speech, her smile, her local-TV coiffure--it hits all the right notes. And for a country now suckling on the embarrassing nectar of reality television, she has a kind of TV authenticity. Her daughter's pregnant. She kills moose. Her husband's called the first dude. Wow!

None of this would matter, of course, if Americans had the ability to judge her words. This is the greatest failing of our democracy, though. They don't. When we get into the issue of Iraq, Palin floats this gem out there:
Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that's for sure. And it's not what our nation needs to be able to count on. You guys opposed the surge. The surge worked. Barack Obama still can't admit the surge works.
Judged from the celebrity point of view, it's a big winner. It is plucky and cutely vicious ("white flag of surrender"). It is pro-soldier and pro-America. And it touches on the issue of tactics. Judged from the point of view of real policy, it's childish nonsense. She launches a dog-whistle ad hominem to arouse the base, but at least that's just boorish, not wrong. When she talks about what the troops want to hear (they're supporting Obama, based both on polling and campaign donations), she marches into inaccuracy. She continues by reducing the issue of Iraq to the surge, and then claiming that it worked. She has not the slightest sense of the nuance of relationships in Iraq, what "working" would constitute, or what the surge was intended to accomplish. When McCain says these same things, we understand that he's shading the truth to orient the discussion to his terms. When she says them, it sounds like a 14-year-old repeating what her daddy said.

She wins the point, of course, because Americans haven't a clue what the issues are in Iraq. They didn't when they overwhelmingly supported invasion, minimally supported occupation, and now overwhelmingly support withdrawal. Lacking the information to judge the point on its merits, they default to the celebrity metric. (David Brooks abandons dignity and sides with this analysis.)

But the thing that really alarmed me was her demeanor. She was confident throughout the debate. She grinned at Biden, as if to say, "you poor bastard, I'm about to gut you like a moose." She tore into her nonsense-paragraphs with the confidence of Churchill or King. As the debate wore on, you could tell she really thought she was kicking ass. It's bad when someone like Cheney tries to trick the stupid; it's somehow worse when Palin also falls for the trick. The pantomime of leadership is, in Palin's mind, the same as leadership. When I was a small child, I used to think that making loopy squiggles on the page was writing. I assumed that since I couldn't understand the adult squiggles on the page, no one could. Mine were therefore just as good. Palin spent the night making loopy squiggles and thinking it was prose.

This was Palin, teeth sparkling inside her triumphant smile:
And Secretary Rice, having recently met with leaders on one side or the other there, also, still in these waning days of the Bush administration, trying to forge that peace, and that needs to be done, and that will be top of an agenda item, also, under a McCain-Palin administration.
Nailed it! Take that, Joe Biden.

As to the thought experiment, I do think she would have gone for it. Why not?--Obama's a way better fit. He's young, glamorous, and his brand is better. She doesn't look so good in those bulky "Maverick" jeans. She wants a pair of "Change" slacks. She could probably even shift course if they decided to have a mid-season trade. Different uniform, same smile, same line readings. For someone so powerfully ignorant of the ramifications of leadership, what difference does it matter?


Chuck Butcher said...

Some real good turns of phrasing, maybe you should write a book or something.

"The pantomime of leadership is, in Palin's mind, the same as leadership. When I was a small child, I used to think that making loopy squiggles on the page was writing. I assumed that since I couldn't understand the adult squiggles on the page, no one could. Mine were therefore just as good. Palin spent the night making loopy squiggles and thinking it was prose." This is particularly good and "pantomine of leadership" is flat outstanding.

Jeff Alworth said...

Thanks for the kind words, Chuck. Since so few people read this blog, when I do a post with a fair amount of analysis, I figure no one will see it. Great to hear someone appreciated it--

Chuck Butcher said...

I linked it also

iggir said...

whoa, you have a blog? i should check this out...