Wednesday, October 8, 2008
The Archetype of Palin
About a month ago, I cited a passage from Walt Whitman to argue that it's unseemly to challenge someone's qualifications for running for office in America, because our nation is founded on the principle of citizen government. The post was in direct reference to Sarah Palin, but it implicitly applied to the same challenges levelled at Barack Obama.
Yesterday a colleague said something that made me rethink my argument. To paraphrase, he said that in America, anyone can grow up to be president, but that doesn't mean that anyone who has grown up in America should be president. Where you start from, in principle, should not be an impediment to reaching the highest office of the land. But you have to reach it. To say that anyone can grow up to be president, in essence, equates "growing up" with preparing oneself for the job.
In that sense, it's fair to question whether someone has prepared themselves for the job. And I think that while every president is something of a wild card on the day they are first sworn in, Barack Obama has cleared the "burden of proof" bar through the past 18 months of campaigning, whereas Sarah Palin hasn't.
I think she one day might. I found her winks at the Vice-Presidential debate inappropriate and her manner strangely out of place. Her rapport with the camera and the viewers on the other end of it made me think that that she's never quite forgotten her sportscaster days. But her appeal, while I'm not susceptible to it, is apparent. Tom Barnett has a real sensible take on it here, where he manages to acknowledge her talent, charm and intelligence, without becoming a Lowry laughingstock.
During the Democratic primaries, a French psychoanalyst told me that Hillary Clinton was facing the challenge all women politicians face, namely how to make herself desired without losing her credibility. Because making oneself desired is the essence of democratic politics, just like making oneself feared is the essence of autocratic politics. Policy is an afterthought. Since male virility is the default model in politics, the ways in which a male candidate makes himself desired are invisible. A woman who adopts them becomes either strangely asexual or butch. But no one has yet found the political use for the ways in which women have traditionally made themselves desired.
Palin just might find a way to do that. Right now she's just reading off the script she's been handed, which gives her a variation of the folksy image George W. Bush used to such advantage. Bush's version evolved from the virile rancher suspicious of government intrusion (pre-9/11) to the avenging sheriff reluctantly imposing law and order (post-9/11). Palin's, for the time being, is the frontier moralist with the mannerisms of the bawdyhouse. But they're both cynical manipulations of American folk archetypes, stripped of all their traditional, Whitmanesque folk wisdom, with nothing in the way of actual substance and authority to replace it.
I'm as convinced as ever that it's a losing script this year. I've said for months that when Obama and John McCain stand onstage side by side, the reality will sink in to American voters. After the first debate, I had a moment of doubt. But that's been one of the subtexts of Tuesday night's debate.
So Palin will have some time to prepare herself. She's already got the political skills. If she backs that up with some substance, it will be a compelling combination.