Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Beauty isn't everything. Right?

American political campaigns are all about celebrity. The essential objective is to become more famous than one's opponent in a short amount of time. You do this with sly commercials, and pithy put-downs, and three-word mantras chanted by supporters, and, if you're lucky, by sheer personal attractiveness.

That's why I first thought the not-so-attractive John McCain had made a shrewd choice by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate: She's a great-looking woman with a wonderful smile. And if there's a single tenet upon which all Americans can agree, it's that great-looking people rule, particularly if they smile wonderfully.

But there's another tenet: Smart-sounding people also rule. Sometimes they rule even more -- say, after eight years of a president who has trouble putting a sentence together. Barack Obama's defining advantage has always been that he sounds very smart, even when his oratory soars into ephemeral realms and does not quite cohere. Hey, at least he's trying. Joe Biden always talks like he shouldn't have had that last martini, but his sentences hold up even when they're not strictly on message.

It's been a few weeks now, and I'm finally ready to conclude that Sarah Palin, good-looking as she is, doesn't sound very smart. She might have the brain of Steven Hawking behind those designer specs, but I have my doubts. Every speech is nearly identical to the one she gave at the convention; if I hear that "thanks but no thanks" line one more time, regarding the storied Bridge to Nowhere, I'm going to vomit. She doesn't give many interviews, and after the Charlie Gibson debacle, you can see why. It's as though memorizing that convention address didn't leave a lot of room upstairs for more facts. That's not a good sign. It wasn't that long a speech.

Now the McCain campaign is shuttling Mrs. Palin around to meet with various international figures, evidently deciding that if she's a little fuzzy about NATO or the Bush Doctrine, these guys can fill in some background. There she is with Henry Kissinger, of all people, whose mind seems to be elsewhere. Perhaps Paris in 1973. I don't know, perhaps his prostate.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can't hurt. If something sidelines McCain and she gets that phone call at 3 a.m., no doubt the chats she had with Hamid Karzai or the president of Colombia will be a source of inspiration. But there's something a little childish about it, too. It's as though she's cramming for finals, trying to get up to speed on the Magna Carta before being called upon by grumpy professor Biden. That debate is coming right up (Oct. 2), and he'll eat her alive if she once again shows up without her homework.

If I were going on national TV, I'd be cramming too. But then most of us wouldn't accept a vice presidential nomination if we really had no clue and no curiosity about U.S. foreign policy. This is what troubles me about Sarah Palin: I think she knows what she knows, and she doesn't deem it necessary to know more. Basing every decision on personal moral conviction may sound admirable, but as we've seen, it's no way to run a democracy. And it's no way to win an argument with Joe Biden.

It will be an interesting debate. I expect to cringe a fair amount. I'll go out on a limb and say it could be the defining point of the election.


Jessie K said...

I so agree with you. While on the one hand I admire her independent spirit and pluck, Sarah Palin reminds me of certain people we both know. (Guess who?)

The Oct. 2 debate is going to be bigger than the Super Bowl!

Uriah Robinson said...

Here in the UK we have just had PM Gordon Brown [and the power behind Tony Blair for 10 years] produce the same speech he has given so many times rehashed once again for his party conference.
He keeps telling us he is no good at speeches and proving it.
Don't complain about Sarah Palin at least she knows one end of a dog sleigh from the other. ;o)

Anonymous said...

There are no black and white questions in life but luckily I have just found one so I now can relax and vote for Labour without any of my usual dithering between not very good, even worse, and even worse options. The party just announced free drugs for cancer patients. That gets my vote, no other questions asked.

The level of the debate in the US is very sad, I was amazed by the choice of, response to, and immediate popularity of Sarah Palin, whom I don't like because she is anti-science, whatever else she may or may not be. But she seems to be tailing down a bit now that the "two weeks novelty" effect has worn off.

Uriah Robinson said...

Maxine I always wait for the small print when it comes to a Brown announcement but I agree this is a good start. Also our options are very limited in the UK with two chances every 10 years to change the ruling party as opposed to the US who would have five elections that count in that period.

Dave Knadler said...

The British perspective on this is interesting. I think the frequency of potentially game-changing elections here is not necessarily a good thing; it magnifies the influence of lobbyists and multiplies the instances of short-term political pandering. But maybe you see a fair amount of that in the U.K. too.

You're right about Sarah Palin, Maxine. Today I was reading a quote she uttered during her talk with Katie Couric, and it was every bit as incomprehensible as anything George W. Bush has ever said. This is not 2000; I think Americans no longer find mangled grammar charming or reassuring. They can see what sort of mindset it reflects.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I was in Northern Ireland during the Republican Convention (that's republican in the U.S. sense!), and I watched some of the BBC's coverage of Sarah Palin's speech. The coverage was far superior to most American coverage, but that's not the purpose of this comment.

When I heard Sarah Palin, who staked her fame on taxing oil companies in Alaska, mouthing the tired Republican lines about how Democrats want to tax you and spend your money and so on, I thought: A bold choice for vice president, and this is what she has to say for herself? This is evidence of desperation. McCain is going to get steamrolled.

I was gobsmacked when I returned to the U.S., and commentators were talking about the Palin effect and what a boon she had been to the campaign.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

It also seems to me (from the outside) that Palin has had a much, much easier ride than Hillary. Boy, did everyone go for her. That was vicious.

Republicans who were lobbying for Pain to be given an easy ride in the Biden debate were not exactly using similar logic with H Clinton a mere few weeks previously.