Well, I just got mugged by the nature of modern media, and I wish it weren’t my fault, but it is. Readers deserve an explanation, so I’m putting a new top on today’s column and, with the forbearance of the Journal, here it is.
Wednesday afternoon, in a live MSNBC television panel hosted by NBC’s political analyst Chuck Todd, and along with Republican strategist Mike Murphy, we discussed Sarah Palin’s speech this evening to the Republican National Convention. I said she has to tell us in her speech who she is, what she believes, and why she’s here. We spoke of Republican charges that the media has been unfair to Mrs. Palin, and I defended the view that while the media should investigate every quote and vote she’s made, and look deeply into her career, it has been unjust in its treatment of her family circumstances, and deserved criticism for this.
When the segment was over and MSNBC was in commercial, Todd, Murphy and I continued our conversation, talking about the Palin choice overall. We were speaking informally, with some passion—and into live mics. An audio tape of that conversation was sent, how or by whom I don’t know, onto the internet. And within three hours I was receiving it from friends far and wide, asking me why I thought the McCain campaign is “over”, as it says in the transcript of the conversation. Here I must plead some confusion. In our off-air conversation, I got on the subject of the leaders of the Republican party assuming, now, that whatever the base of the Republican party thinks is what America thinks. I made the case that this is no longer true, that party leaders seem to me stuck in the assumptions of 1988 and 1994, the assumptions that reigned when they were young and coming up. “The first lesson they learned is the one they remember,” I said to Todd—and I’m pretty certain that is a direct quote. But, I argued, that’s over, those assumptions are yesterday, the party can no longer assume that its base is utterly in line with the thinking of the American people. And when I said, “It’s over!”—and I said it more than once—that is what I was referring to. I am pretty certain that is exactly what Todd and Murphy understood I was referring to. In the truncated version of the conversation, on the Web, it appears I am saying the McCain campaign is over. I did not say it, and do not think it. In fact, at an on-the-record press symposium on the campaign on Monday, when all of those on the panel were pressed to predict who would win, I said that I didn’t know, but that we just might find “This IS a country for old men.” That is, McCain may well win. I do not think the campaign is over, I do not think this is settled, and did not suggest, back to the Todd-Murphy conversation, that “It’s over.”
However, I did say two things that I haven’t said in public, either in speaking or in my writing. One is a vulgar epithet that I wish I could blame on the mood of the moment but cannot. No one else, to my memory, swore. I just blurted. The other, more seriously, is a real criticism that I had not previously made, but only because I hadn’t thought of it. And it is connected to a thought I had this morning, Wednesday morning, and wrote to a friend. Here it is. Early this morning I saw Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and as we chatted about the McCain campaign (she thoughtfully and supportively) I looked into her eyes and thought, Why not her? Had she been vetted for the vice presidency, and how did it come about that it was the less experienced Mrs. Palin who was chosen? I didn’t ask these questions or mention them, I just thought them. Later in the morning, still pondering this, I thought of something that had happened exactly 20 years before. It was just after the 1988 Republican convention ended. I was on the plane, as a speechwriter, that took Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, and the new vice presidential nominee, Dan Quayle, from New Orleans, the site of the convention, to Indiana. Sitting next to Mr. Quayle was the other senator from that state, Richard Lugar. As we chatted, I thought, “Why him and not him?” Why Mr. Quayle as the choice, and not the more experienced Mr. Lugar? I came to think, in following years, that some of the reason came down to what is now called The Narrative. The story the campaign wishes to tell about itself, and communicate to others. I don’t like the idea of The Narrative. I think it is … a barnyard epithet. And, oddly enough, it is something that Republicans are not very good at, because it’s not where they live, it’s not what they’re about, it’s too fancy. To the extent the McCain campaign was thinking in these terms, I don’t like that either. I do like Mrs. Palin, because I like the things she espouses. And because, frankly, I met her once and liked her. I suspect, as I say further in here, that her candidacy will be either dramatically successful or a dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.
But, bottom line, I am certainly sorry I blurted my barnyard ephithet, I am certainly sorry that someone abused my meaning in the use of the words, “It’s over,” and I’m sorry I didn’t have the Kay Bailey Hutchison thought before this morning, because I could have written of it. There. Now: onto today’s column.
* * *
Notes from the convention:
Drafts of John McCain’s acceptance speech have been bopping around the inside of the campaign for at least a few days, and a question is whether or how much it will be changed to account for the hurricane in New Orleans and the Gulf coast. An early draft is said to have been direct to the point of rambunctious in drawing contrasts between the policies of Obama and McCain. “Lotta biography, lotta foreign policy, taking Obama straight on,” said a GOP strategist Tuesday afternoon. The final draft may be different, softer.
Advice? By Thursday night rambunctious will be fine, and a relief. Great political parties must show compassion, but they don’t want to wilt with the weight of it.
And: Wit, wit, wit. Humor. “A maid laughing is half taken,” said a randy old Elizabethan poet. A voter laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks. Here is a fact of American politics: If you make us laugh we spread your line for free.
I do not understand the absence of humor, that powerful weapon, that rhetorical cannon, in this year’s campaign. There are a lot of things to say here but let me tell you the first I think of. America is a huge and lonely country. We are vast, stretch coast to coast, live in self-sufficient pods; modern culture tends us toward the atomic, the fractured and broken up. When two people meet, as they come to know each other as neighbors or colleagues, one of the great easers, one of the great ways of making a simple small human connection is: shared laughter. We are a political nation. We talk politics. So fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point.
Obama talked to the audience; he talked TO America. McCain should talk with the audience. He should keep in mind that if his audience is laughing and chanting, it will help him with his delivery. As they cheer he can smile, while checking his next line. I am told alternately that he has given up on the teleprompter and will go straight from text, and that he will use a teleprompter. I assume the latter is true. If it is it will be interesting to see if he has mastered it. That will tell us if he practiced the speech. That will tell us if he knows what this speech IS, which is one big fat brilliant opportunity. If he’s reading from text, well, it is not true that this is impossible in the media age. People didn’t use teleprompters until 30 years ago. But when McCain reads straight from text we tend to see a lot of the top of his head, with the soft white hair and the pink brow glistening under the lights. Which tends to accentuate his age. So how he does the speech is of more than academic interest.
Watch for this: How does McCain differentiate himself from President Bush – or distance himself from him—in front of Bush’s party?
* * *
The choice of Sarah Palin IS a Hail Mary pass, the pass the guy who thinks he has a good arm makes to the receiver he hopes is gifted.
Most Hail Mary passes don’t work.
But when they do they’re a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
* * *
Gut: The Sarah Palin choice is really going to work, or really not going to work. It’s not going to be a little successful or a little not; it’s not going to be a wash. She is either going to be magic or one of history’s accidents. She is either going to be brilliant and groundbreaking, or will soon be the target of unattributed quotes by bitter staffers shifting blame in all the Making of the President 2008 books. Of which there should be plenty, as we’ve never had a year like this, with the fabulous freak of a campaign.
More immediately and seriously on Palin:
Because she jumbles up so many cultural categories, because she is a feminist not in the Yale Gender Studies sense but the How Do I Reload This Thang way, because she is a woman who in style, history, moxie and femininity is exactly like a normal American feminist and not an Abstract Theory feminist; because she wears makeup and heels and eats mooseburgers and is Alaska Tough, as Time magazine put it; because she is conservative, and pro-2nd Amendment and pro-life; and because conservatives can smell this sort of thing—who is really one of them and who is not—and will fight to the death for one of their beleaguered own; because of all of this she is a real and present danger to the American left, and to the Obama candidacy.
She could become a transformative political presence.
So they are going to have to kill her, and kill her quick.
And it’s going to be brutal. It’s already getting there.
There are only two questions.
1. Can she take it?
Will she be rattled? Can she sail through high seas? Can she roll with most punches and deliver some jabs herself?
2. And while she’s taking it, rolling with it and sailing through, can she put herself forward convincingly as serious enough, grounded enough, weighty enough that the American people can imagine her as vice president of the United States?
I suppose every candidate for vice president faces these questions to some degree, but because Palin is new, unknown, and a woman, it’s all much more so.
* * *
I don’t think the most powerful attack line will be, in the end, inexperience. Our nation appears to be in a cycle in which inexperience seems something of a lure. “He’s fresh, he’s new, he hasn’t appalled me yet!” I don’t think it’s age. While Palin seems to me young, so does Obama. I freely concede this is a drawback of getting older: you keep upping your idea of what “old enough” is. But only because when you’re 50 you know you’re wiser and more seasoned than you were at 40, or should be.
America, even as it ages, loves youth and admires its strength.
I think the left will go hard on this: Fringe. Radical. What goes on in her church? Isn’t she extreme? Does she really think God wants a pipeline? What does Sarah Barracuda really mean? They’re going to try and make her strange, outré, oddball. And not in a good way.
In all this, and in its involvement in this week’s ritual humiliation of a 17-year-old girl, the mainstream press may seriously overplay its hand, and court a backlash that impacts the election. More on that in a moment.
* * *
I’ll tell you how powerful Mrs. Palin already is: she reignited the culture wars just by showing up. She scrambled the battle lines, too. The crustiest old Republican men are shouting “Sexism!” when she’s slammed. Pro-woman Democrats are saying she must be a bad mother to be all ambitious with kids in the house. Great respect goes to Barack Obama not only for saying criticism of candidates’ children is out of bounds in political campaigns, but for making it personal, and therefore believable. “My mother had me when she was eighteen…” That was the lovely sound of class in American politics.
* * *
Let me say of myself and almost everyone I know in the press, all the chattering classes and political strategists and inside dopesters of the Amtrak Acela Line: We live in a bubble and have around us bubble people. We are Bubbleheads. We know this and try to compensate for it by taking road trips through the continent—we’re on one now, in Minneapolis—where we talk to normal people. But we soon forget the pithy, knowing thing the garage mechanic said in the diner, and anyway we weren’t there long enough in the continent to KNOW, to absorb. We view through a prism of hyper-sophistication, and judge by the rules of Chevy Chase and Greenwich, of Cleveland Park and McLean, of Bronxville and Manhattan.
And again we know this, we know this is our limit, our lack.
But we also forget it.
And when you forget you’re a Bubblehead you get in trouble, you misjudge things. For one thing, you assume evangelical Christians will be appalled and left agitated by the circumstances of Mrs. Palin’s daughter. But modern American evangelicals are among the last people who’d judge her harshly. It is the left that is about to go crazy with Puritan judgments; it is the right that is about to show what mellow looks like. Religious conservatives know something’s wrong with us, that man’s a mess. They are not left dazed by the latest applications of this fact. “This just in – there’s a lot of sinning going on out there” is not a headline they’d understand to be news.
So the media’s going to wait for the Christian right to rise up and condemn Mrs. Palin, and they’re not going to do it because it’s not their way, and in any case her problems are their problems. Christians lived through the second half of the 20th century, and the first years of the 21st. They weren’t immune from the culture, they just eventually broke from it, or came to hold themselves in some ways apart from it. I think the media will explain the lack of condemnation as “Republican loyalty” and “talking points.” But that’s not what it will be.
Another Bubblehead blind spot. I’m bumping into a lot of critics who do not buy the legitimacy of small town mayorship (Palin had two terms in Wasilla, Alaska, population 9,000 or so) and executive as opposed to legislative experience. But executives, even of small towns, run something. There are 262 cities in this country with a population of 100,000 or more. But there are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. “You do the math,” the conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway told me. “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.”
* * *
The mainstream media, which has been holding endless symposia here on the future of media in the 21st century, is in danger of missing a central fact of that future: If they appear, once again, as they have in the past, to be people not reporting the battle but engaged in the battle, if they allow themselves to be tagged by that old tag, which so tarnished them in the past, they will do more to imperil their own future than the Internet has.
This is true: fact is king. Information is king. Great reporting is what every honest person wants now, it’s the one ironic thing we have less of in journalism than we need. But reporting that carries an agenda, that carries Bubblehead assumptions and puts them forth as obvious truths? Well, some people want that. But if I were doing a business model for broadsheets and broadcast networks I’d say: Fact and data are our product, we’re putting everything into reporting, that’s what we’re selling, interpretation is the reader’s job, and think pieces are for the edit page where we put the hardy, blabby hacks.
That was a long way of saying: Dig deep into Sarah Palin, get all you can, talk to everybody, get every vote, every quote, tell us of her career and life, she may be the next vice president. But don’t play games. And leave her kid alone, bitch.
* * *
Final point. Palin’s friends should be less immediately worried about what the Obama campaign will do to her than what the McCain campaign will do. This is a woman who’s tough enough to work her way up and through, and to say yes to a historic opportunity, but she will know little of, or rather have little experience in, the mischief inherent in national Republican politics. She will be mobbed up in the McCain campaign by people who care first about McCain and second about themselves. (Or, let’s be honest, often themselves first and then McCain.) Palin will never be higher than number three in their daily considerations. They won’t have enough interest in protecting her, advancing her, helping her play to her strengths, helping her kick away from danger. And – there is no nice way to say this, even though at this point I shouldn’t worry about nice – some of them are that worst sort of aide, dim and insensitive past or present lobbyists with high self-confidence. She’ll be a thing to them; they’ll see the smile and the chignon and the glasses and think she’s Truvi from Steel Magnolias. They’ll run right over her, not because they’re strong but because they’re stupid. The McCain campaign better get straight on this. He should step in, knock heads, scare his own people and get Palin the help and high-level staff all but the most seasoned vice presidential candidates require.