Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sarah Palin's historical vacation

A vacation was all she ever wanted, it seems. For the maybe-never-but-possibly-next-year contender for the presidency Sarah Palin®, her latest heart’s desire was a road trip — the perfect all-expenses paid way to take the family to see America. Especially Mount Vernon. And Boston. And Ellis Island. And Fort McHenry. And Gettysburg.

And New Hampshire.

The ostensible rationale for the Palin road trip to East Coast historic sites was sightseeing, a View-Master trip to some of the country’s most revered locations. But back of it all is the veiled possibility (some will say “threat”) that she will join an increasingly growing field of hopefuls for the White House in 2012. That’s still possible, and only Palin knows for sure.

Right now, though, the One Nation tour has to be seen as an act of political unconscious: a cry for attention and relevance from a wayward student of politics and the media, one who’s locked into the shopworn assumption that public exposure is the sole standard of public value, that the more you’re in the public eye, the more credible — maybe even electable — you are.

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Palin proved that wrong on two occasions late last week, making a bid for the unclaimed title of national revisionist historian in chief. First, on Wednesday, she made hash out of the history behind France’s gift of the “Liberty Enlightening the World” to the United States in July 1876:

“It is, of course, the symbol for Americans to be reminded of other countries, because it was gifted us of course by the French, other countries warning us to never make the mistakes that some of them have made.” It was, of course, a revisitation of what she said about the Statue of Liberty back in September, when she first called the statue a “warning” against “socialism.”

Then it was on to Boston on Friday for a strolling lecture on certain events preceding the American Revolution. Palin, holding forth on the particulars of Paul Revere’s ride, proceeded to mangle an historical event any reasonably attentive fifth-grader could nail down without writing on either hand:

Answering an utterly innocent question, Palin referred to Paul Revere as “he who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms by ringing those bells and makin’ sure as he was ridin’ his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free.”

Blog writer justlw in the Huffington Post: “Probably time to recheck 'The Three Warning Signs of a Stroke.' ”

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Casual students of history know that Revere rang no bells on his ride from Boston to Concord, Mass., on April 18, 1775, warning people (notably agitators Samuel Adams and John Hancock) that “the British are coming!” on the evening before the battles of Lexington and Concord. In fact the silversmith and engraver instructed associates to hang lanterns in the Old North Church, in Boston’s North End— a signal meant to warn patriots of which route the British would take to advance to Concord. The signal was the origin of the celebrated “one if by land, two if by sea” phrase from Longfellow’s poem.

Not in Palin's history books. Firing a return volley, she showed why her only trip to the White House will be with a visitors’ pass. Rather than owning up to the gaffe — a mistake not altogether unforgivable on the face of it — Palin doubled down on her own certitude. Rather than offer us a glimpse of the accessible, human character that aligns with American experience, Palin blamed the media.

“You know what? I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere,” Palin told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “... part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there ...” she said before going on to blame the reporter, saying that the “shoutout, gotcha kinda question that was asked me I answered candidly.”

Sarah Palin is clearly in something of a netherworld of American history, her own last frontier of reality. The only ringing bells may be the ones in her head. Seeing things from the high perch of her own ambitions, anything’s possible.

Having been effectively liberated from a go/no-go timetable by the forecast of former McCain 2008 honcho Steve Schmidt (who said recently [two candidates ago] that the field of GOP hopefuls was such that “serious” candidates might not announce until “as late as the fall”), Sarah Palin is in the position of not having to commit to doing anything right now, happy in her evolving role as trickster and agent provocateur for the foreseeable future. She may not decide to run until the field finally (presumably) settles itself out when the leaves begin to fall. In the fall.

She can take potshots at the Obama administration and her Republican rivals from behind the walls of a bus tour rambling around the country all summer long. Sarah Palin may have stumbled into a spasm of genius: She’s conducting a road-show exploratory committee, making focus groups of voters in the early primary states and doing it up close & personal, testing the waters by pressing the flesh. Not an injudicious thing to do.

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Trouble is, she’s just pressing the flesh of the faithful. When she speaks, she regurgitates the talking points of the Tea Party regulars who've been in her corner from the beginning. When she makes public appearances, she walls herself off from any questions from the “lamestream media” she eagerly blames for her own rhetorical inanities.

She’s preaching to the same choir she’s been preaching to for years. While that may help among deep-conservative voters in the primaries against the Republicans, it does next to nothing to advance Palin as a credible candidate among the wider American population — the voters she’d need to win.

For a first-timer in the national spotlight, this bus tour, this coy game of will-she-or-won’t-she would be mildly diverting. But this isn’t first Sarah Palin’s first rodeo on the national stage. She’s supposed to have learned something in three years. She’s learned how to make money, that’s for damn sure. She knows how to toy with the press, and has a clear command of the ruder aspects of developing the cult of personality that currently surrounds her.

Does she know how to govern? Does she have the capacity to lead not a subset but a nation?

She’ll get right back to us on that one. You betcha.

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Anyway, it’s a moot point. One of the mainstream Republican candidates would certainly defeat her for the nomination. If the earth’s gravitational axis shifted and she actually won the nomination, she’d go on to lose hugely in the general election. So why even bother? If her appeal never pushes beyond the Tea Party amen corner, what’s the point?

But it’s not even that complicated. What makes this such an exercise in fattening frogs for snakes, such a humorous but futile dance, centers on the fact that the negative factors — the reasons for not running — have less to do with the strength or number of her potential rivals, and everything to do with her.

Sarah Palin will never be president because, end of the day, she doesn’t want to be. Not really. Hell, she ran 2 percent of the United States and walked away from that after two years. Who in his or her right mind thinks she’s got the stamina and intellectual gravitas for a four-year gig as the CEO of the United States?

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Governing isn’t what animates the Palin mystique; she hasn’t done enough of it. It’s the idea of governing. The oxygen for Palin’s identity, her public persona is totally derived from her supporters’ aggressively embroidered notion that she should be president.

For Palin to actually do it — seek the job, mount a campaign, get down in the trough and the mud on a level playing field with everyone else in the ring — flattens and homogenizes her brand, diminishing her outsize personality in a way she’s not comfortable with. She’s better off above the fray, calling her shots, imparting wisdom and American history, a legend on the Denali of her own mind.

We’ve just hit June; Pawlenty’s already in and Romney announced last week (more on him to come). But even as the Republican field grows as fall approaches, here’s a friendly wager that a “fire in the belly” has never been an issue with Sarah Palin; that presidentially speaking, she hasn’t got the ambition needed to light a Coleman camp stove; that when push comes to shove, the former governor’s vacation is likely to be an extended one.

Image credits: Palin I: Associated Press. Palin II: Fox News Sunday. Palin III: New York Daily News. Paul Revere: Detail of a portrait by John Singleton Copley.

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