Monday, September 22, 2008

Sarah Palin's credibility tour

Maybe it’s a more or less logical result of living in the Instapundit age, a time when you can know a lot about a little or a little about a lot, depending on your mood and your aptitude for processing information: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential running mate of Sen. John McCain, arrived in New York City today for a crash course in nothing less than international credibility.

The McCain campaign has announced that Palin would meet nine! world! leaders and global players! over three days at the United Nations General Assembly. In just thirty hours Palin will encounter a star-studded cavalcade of international decision makers. Karzai! Kissinger! Yuschenko! Saakashvili! Bono! It's a collection of the world's greatest hits (or hitters) and Sarah Palin gets to play in their sandbox. For a moment.

The McCain campaign is making this move to defuse critics who say that Palin, the governor of Alaska for two months short of two years, someone who got her first passport last year, has no foreign policy experience. The hope, the Republican thinking goes, that this will “burnish” her foreign policy cred. It’s an ambitious strategy that, nonetheless, overlooks the fact that you can’t burnish what doesn’t exist in the first place.

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It would be funny if it weren’t so transparently desperate. Faced with their presidential nominee’s choice of a brash, fairly talented but utterly relentless amateur to be his running mate, Team McCain has accepted the challenge of creating Sarah Palin’s global bona fides literally overnight.

They’re attempting to compress the aura of experience on the world stage into not weeks or days, but literally hours. It’s not speed-dating, it’s speed-greeting, hello goodbye at the geopolitical level. This is a strategy pulled from the instruction manual of the Evelyn Wood School of International Relations.

Ironically, Palin’s credibility tour is philosophically compromised already, no matter how this turns out, because it contradicts the thrust of one of McCain’s prime attacks on Obama late this summer. Remember? Barack Obama spoke in Berlin, as part of his tour of Europe and the Middle East, a tour that was an organic demonstration of global interest in an American politician who’d refined his message and his oratory over years in elective politics and community relations.

Obama was being castigated by McCain for pursuing the status of a global celebrity. Now, apparently, it’s Sarah Palin’s turn for a closeup.

What’s sadder still is the fact that the McCain campaign and its advisers still believe the American people — or at least the low- or no-information voters Team McCain is counting on — are as shallow and one-dimensional as this strategy is, shallow enough to buy into this photo-op orgy and equate it with real qualification. This whirlwind courtship already looks exactly like what it is.

Team McCain also misinterprets what matters to people, despite such brazen PR manipulations: those global players and the American people are looking for a vice president who can stand in the fire, handle the unpredictable, think on her feet and answer the tough questions herself. No handlers, no BlackBerry-dependent mouthpieces, no First Dude at her elbow. They’re looking for the plain-spoken Original that she’s manufactured herself to be. It’s hard for that to happen when everything is safely arranged.

But then again, everything might not be safely arranged. The Republicans are apparently downplaying the potential for surprise. But there’s no guarantee that Colombian president Alvaro Uribe won't press her on that long-sought trade agreement. Or that Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, won’t ask Palin for her position on the airstrikes that have indiscriminately killed Afghan women and children. There’s no guarantee, for that matter, that Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, won’t pigeonhole her to get her stance on the need to withdraw American troops from that country, and refining a timetable for doing so.

And there’s shouldn’t be any such guarantees. They know what’s at stake, and they’ve got a right to ask those questions, and more besides. Much of their futures and their nations’ futures hang in the balance.

What the Republicans and Team McCain see as a glittery People magazine spread (and you can count on seeing the two-shot with Bono in People’s pages) is already something more substantive. This will be more than a coming-out party for a debutante; the fact that the McCain campaign believes that photo-ops with world leaders impart instant credibility is sadly dispiriting in itself.

What Andy Warhol once famously observed about the ephemeral nature of the cult of personality may be true; maybe we all do get to be famous for fifteen minutes. Whether we get to be experienced in fifteen minutes is another matter entirely.
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Image credits: Palin: Airman 1st Class Kenny Holston (public domain). Karzai: Public domain. Talabani: Public domain. Bono: © 2008 World Economic Forum.

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