Life Stranger than Fiction: The Palin phenomenon

For the earliest peripatetics who toured America — say, a visitor such as Alexis de Tocqueville — politics was one of the greatest fascinations about the nascent nation. Not only because it was ubiquitous — with its fingerprints smudged over nearly every aspect of public life — but because politics served as both magnet and outlet for the robust, often uncontainable energies of the American people. In the French analyst’s words:

No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult . . . A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements . . . All around you everything is on the move . . . (with associations of every stripe) commercial . . . industrial . . . religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.

Nearly two centuries later, and despite a complex social history of ever and greater privatization of the public sphere, the cacophony and tumult of the political in American life is no less true. A contemporary visitor can not help but notice, with a current presidential race now heading into its home stretch. What de Tocqueville marveled was a quadrennial “revolution … in the name of the law” will, come November 4, be upon Americans once more.

And, in the run-up to November 4, Americans have witnessed nothing short of that which de Tocqueville did, back in 1832:

Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds . . . As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps . . . The whole nation gets into a feverish state . . .

In short, they go gaga over the spontaneous, the conflagratory, the manufactured invention and intrigue that has been . . . the unveiling of Sarah Palin.

Or, by other lights: life stranger than fiction.

By now, just about everyone with an opinion and Internet access has weighed in on the Palin choice. I have read at least 12% of all that has been written — which means about 638 articles. (Don’t call me obsessed, just a glutton for the astounding). I have my favorites — roughly hewing close to my intellectual and ideological biases. In general, after surveying the field, I have to declare that the liberals have the most to say (and have said it best!), if only because Palin is not one of theirs, and also in large part because they can’t unwrap their brains from the agglomerating prospect that Americans might actually be foolish enough to buy into the idea that the nation can afford another 4 years of an inflexible leader who prefers Cliff Note versions of the world’s complex issues, tries to get by on affable charm, and adheres to hard-line positions, which s/he is certain are correct, and then, in the mistaken belief that moving from a position signals weakness, seeks to hold firm — come hell or high water.

Haven’t we seen this (disaster) movie before? (And hasn’t it led to any number of calamities — both domestic and foreign)? Another 4 years of explosions, implosions, erosions, corrosions . . . how could the global community possibly survive?

Among Palin’s flabbergasted critics Keith Olbermann, of Countdown fame, has proven good for a daily chuckle — only, if you share Olbermann’s world-view, then it is unlikely that you see much hilarity in the idea that Palin might just luck her way into Number One Observatory Circle (of course, if elected, she might just remain in Wasilla and bill the U.S. government for the per diem while she stays at home . . . ). The Olbermanns of the world could only hope for such fortuity.

If you don’t have an idea of how Keith perceives the post-Palin-scape, one of his recent (indignant) takes sounded (and looked) like this:

If Olbermann seems a little over the top for your taste, perhaps John Stewart’s take on The Daily Show better captures the recent Palin hysteria.

Between his lascivious tongue roll and the unblinking posture he suggests that the candidate has adopted toward geo-politics, Stewart has basically codified the twin elements that have so activated the so-called “conservative base” in America. You know, one of those social concatenations that de Tocqueville was getting at: the organic motor to American politics that, in the case of this particular base, indisputably delivered the State of Ohio — and then, in turn, the nation — in the previous election cycle to George Bush.

Adhering to the Tocqueville principle, Palin might just be enough to make history repeat itself. Oh, goody.

Editorial commentary aside, for those who want to follow the Palin phenomenon sans the cynicism, there is no shortage of sources to feed that political thirst. A daily posting of stories from the campaign trail — with a decided liberal twist — can be found at The New Republic. Even if you don’t approve of TNR‘s politics, articles by an array of respected writers do get posted. Notable is E.J. Dionne, Jr., esteemed political columnist for The Washington Post, whose September 9, 2008 piece, “Pulling the Curtain on Palin”, displays a sober appreciation of how the McCain camp viewed Palin from the git-go. Dionne, no less than the McCain handlers, were able to separate fiction from reality (and place fiction first!).

Another spot-on analysis was offered up by James Fallows in his blog for The Atlantic Monthly, following the long-awaited, (long delayed) Charlie Gibson interview. Fallows’ piece is important because it gets at the concern made light of by Stewart, above. As Fallows skillfully de-constructs the VP candidate’s responses in her first day of interviews, he suggests why she was content to parrot positions; her unwillingness to riff on core issues at the heart of political life unmasks, in Fallows’ mind, an historical lack of interest in those issues prior to her selection as Veep. In Fallows’ view, it is not that she isn’t a wonk — anyone can be excused for that — she simply never cared to be attuned to the issues in the first place. They existed in a parallel universe which held little concern for her. And that, Fallows leaves us to surmise, is a dangerous return to the present. By extension, it is not the best way to move into our next future.

Which returns us to John Stewart’s unblinking Sarah. A scary possibility — if that fiction actually turns out to be our new reality.

In thinking about our new reality — embodied in Stewart’s unblinking caricature of strength — I was reminded of one of my favorite political movies of all time: The Candidate by Michael Ritchie. For those of us old enough to remember (!), it is generally the movie’s concluding line — “what do we do now?” — that summons itself most quickly from the depths. It is, after all, the punch-line — what the movie was supposed to be about. For me, though, one of the more memorable sentences comes much earlier in the film, when Bill McKay is in his shabby public-interest law office, announcing his candidacy for Senator of California. The line he utters is: “I don’t know” — in response to a reporter’s question about a policy position on an issue that he has not yet thought about.

The reporter asked: “what do you think about (blank)?” And Bill McKay, candidate to represent millions in America’s most populous state, admits: “I don’t know.” A plain-spoken truth that made the candidate all the more real.

Now, imagine if Sarah Palin had said that during her interview with Gibson. Instead of “in what respect, Charlie?”, what if it all had gone down like this:

Charles Gibson: “what do you think about The Bush Doctrine?”

Sarah Palin: “I don’t know, Charlie.”

Or, if that would cede too much territory and provide too much ammunition to her opponents — who would surely guffaw and publicly point to Palin’s lack of qualifications for the VP post (“you see!? You see?! What we been talking about!”)– what if good ole, plain-spoken, hockey Mom/pitbull Sarah, had said:

“I don’t know, Charlie. I just got this job call, you know, and I don’t know every nuance of every issue, it’s true. But — I promise you . . . and (now staring directly into the TV camera and connecting with each of the 67,000,000 Americans viewing from the comfort of their individual sofas and chairs) this I promise to the American people: I will learn as much as I can, as fast as I can . . . and come January 20th, when John McCain and I are inaugurated, I pledge that I will have learned as much as I can — to faithfully, fully, serve the American people.”

You think that mighta, coulda sold in more living rooms than “in what respect, Charlie?” did?

Or . . . is that too real? Are politicians not allowed to let the truth show through the fiction?

Or else . . . maybe — in its own way — the truth would all be too Hollywood.

Yeah . . . political scripts don’t go that way, right? I mean, imagine if Sarah had really said “I don’t know, Charlie.” Now, if that had been a movie, who would buy tickets to that one?

And, take it a step further: would anyone seriously buy a movie premise where a first term, female governor of the nation’s 47th-most populated state — a gal who had been mayor of a town of 9,000 but two years ago — would be picked for the second highest political office in the land.

I mean — yeah, you’re right . . . that script would never get any financial backers. That movie would never get made. Right? ‘Cause who would ever believe it?

After all, there are some things that simply strain the limits of credulity.

Forget it. Bad idea. We forgot rule number one in Tinsel Town: never let fiction be stranger than real life.

Sorry. Cancel that call to Central Casting.

Back to the drawing board . . . right?