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April 01st 2010 print

Steven Kates

Making Them Listen

Suppose Sarah Palin couldn’t make the simplest public statement without a teleprompter. Just suppose. Suppose she suggested that the people of Austria spoke Austrian or that there were fifty-seven states in the USA. Suppose she really had said that she could see Russia from her front porch. Suppose she had done that, or had spelled potato with an e at the end. Well, we can all agree that any and all of those would clearly make her or anyone else unfit to be President.

Wait, wait. Let’s have another look at the business about the teleprompter. Perhaps it would be a bit hasty to condemn someone as unfit for the presidency for using such modern technologies even in a kindergarten classroom, but should someone write notes on the palm of their hand before making a major speech, nothing would obviously make them less fit to be President than that.

There are at least three matters that follow from this. There is first the malign influence of the established media in the United States on the conduct of American politics. Second is how we, mere citizens, can ever get to know, really know, what we need to know about the people who run for office. Finally, what do we know from her book about who Sarah Palin is and whether or not she has what it takes to be President of the most powerful nation on earth?

The American Media

There is a malignancy in the American media. It has been captured by Left-liberal opinion to such a phenomenal extent that for those who do not share their perspectives, news shows on the traditional networks have become almost impossible to watch and newspapers an ordeal to read. As with the old Soviet press, one must unscramble and decode what is written to work out what may, or may not, have taken place. Sins of omission abound.

There is still, for all that, an expectation that the media will be objective. None of us come without our biases, but there was nevertheless an imperative at one time to try to present the news straight without embedding analysis and personal opinion within the story. Or maybe that is how it looked to me and it is my own opinions that have changed over the years. It is perhaps I who have drifted away from mainstream newspaper opinion while the media is as biased as it ever was.

But still, has there ever been a case quite the same as Sarah Palin’s? And what makes the case all that much more instructive is that her arrival almost exactly parallels the arrival at centre stage of Barack Obama. Whatever one might say about the fitness of Sarah Palin for the Vice-Presidency might just as easily be said about Obama, who was running to be the actual President. Indeed, on almost any of the criteria that one might choose on an objective basis—executive experience, decisiveness, known track record of sound decision making—Sarah Palin comes out ahead. You might like Obama’s aim to “spread the wealth around” or to end the war in Iraq, but there was nothing from his history that would have provided solid evidence that he would be capable of delivering on what he promised.

Politics, like any contact sport, is a much more difficult practice than you might think from watching the pros. The ones who get to the top and stay there have been tested to their utter limits in a proving ground that few can survive. Obama somehow got to the very top without really having had to fight such battles along the way. In large measure he can thank the American media for that. Whatever form of testing examination they might have given to Obama during his run for the President just never happened. He remains a mystery man to this day. Just try to find out his university results. It’s easy to get Sarah Palin’s, impossible to find Obama’s. Why that is I do not know.

Anyway, whatever lack of scrutiny there was of Obama, the media certainly made up for with Sarah Palin. For most of those the media wish to destroy, there is plenty of time. But with the American election imminent—the time between the nomination and the election being less than three months—the need for a proper and thorough character assassination became more urgent. It began on day one, never eased off until after the election was over, and has not ended to this day. The focus on the former vice-presidential candidate and former Governor of Alaska, who is now a private citizen, has been unrelenting.

This business with Sarah Palin having written a few notes on the palm of her hand before speaking to a major gathering—the equivalent to what someone with pockets in his clothes might do on the back of an envelope—is quite instructive. The media in the USA clearly have no shame, nor an apparent sense of irony. Not to have roasted Obama for his addiction to the teleprompter shows a leniency that would never have been extended to anyone on the other side—imagine if George W. Bush never spoke without having nameless others beaming thoughts into his head. It really does speak of someone not in command of his facts or his thoughts and who needs others to feed him directives to keep on track.

Meanwhile Sarah Palin writes a few notes on her hand and the media treats her as if she were a brainless nong, apparently demonstrating an incompetence well beneath that of Obama and his teleprompter. Does the media not think anyone will notice? Do they not even notice it themselves? It is easy to understand Sarah Palin’s take on the media: “What a bunch of buffoons”. How extraordinary it is to observe all this from the outside as the rest of us do, but how much more extraordinary it must be to be the one in the middle of such maddening criticism that never seems to come to an end.

But what is notable about all of this is that she has not wilted. If presidential means being able to take the heat in the kitchen Sarah Palin has demonstrated this quality to the fullest imaginable extent.

How Can We Come to Know Our Political Leaders?

Clearly, one of Sarah Palin’s aims in writing Going Rogue is to tell her side of the story. If all you knew of her was what you knew from reading the papers, you would never be able to understand how she had even become Governor of Alaska, never mind the candidate for Vice-President. Shallow, ignorant, stupid, under-educated, unlettered, incapable and yet incredibly arrogant—these would be the kinds of notions that would immediately come to mind. This is the American mainstream media version of Sarah Palin. I cannot recall a single positive story about her in any of the traditional major American news outlets. Consequently, I would venture there is not a person anywhere interested in the politics of the United States who has not to some extent been influenced by these thoughts.

Yet the unmistakable bias of the media in the USA raises a serious question. If we can no longer depend on the media to provide us with relatively straightforward information about politics and politicians, we are heading for some very rough waters. The American mainstream press—the newsgathering agency of the most powerful nation on earth—given the evidence of their portrayal of Sarah Palin during the Presidential campaign, is a distorting lens that may make it nigh on impossible to know with anything resembling clarity what in fact is taking place. It will require an extraordinarily thick skin to put up with the invasiveness of the press for anyone opposed to the media’s own agenda, an agenda it need hardly be said that should not be part of the way news is gathered or portrayed.

The great equaliser is the internet, which now provides a counterweight to the mainstream media. There are also now other significant sources of information, especially Fox News and talkback radio. For the most part, blogs are merely opinion; very little news is actually generated through the web. But because of the ability to pool whatever news does show up into easily accessible reports, however obscure the origins of such stories might be, alternative sources now exist. But it is not the default position for outside observers. An effort has to be made.

Were Sarah Palin’s reputation solely in the hands of the traditional media her name would now be so mangled, so completely in ruins, no one could remotely suggest that she might yet be the Republican nominee for President. But her reputation is not solely in their hands and she is no farther behind today than Ronald Reagan was in 1977, three years before he was elected. Among some very important segments of the American polity, she is the epitome of excellence. And the book she has written to tell her side of the story is part of her strategy to reinforce those views on the way to becoming President.

That this is a tract intended to make her President I have no doubt. At this stage, so far out from the election in 2012, it is much too early to begin an official campaign which she may eventually decide not to pursue. But positioning is important, and there is a great deal of debris she must clear away. And this debris is from two sources, one the American media but the other from various officials within the McCain election bureaucracy, some of whom seem to have just as great a disdain for their own previous candidate. Her book is an answer to both.

The opening pages seem to be a kind of summary response to all of the major questions about her raised during the campaign. Perhaps the most infamous moment was her non-responsive answer in the CBS interview with Katie Couric about her reading habits. She writes later in the book about how her irritation with the questioning got the better of her—it was an interview many hours long and conducted over a number of days in the midst of a dawn-to-dark political campaign—but in this early section she simply states:

Reading was a special bond between my mother and me … My siblings were better athletes, cuter and more sociable than I, and the only thing they had to envy about me was the special passion for reading that I shared with my mother.

In the first six pages of Going Rogue she weaves in, through personal stories from her past, her pro-life position, her fiscal conservatism, her long-time interest in politics, her introduction to political thinking by Ronald Reagan, her opposition to rule-by-insiders, her sense of herself as an outsider, her aim to bring ethical issues into the political process, the importance of energy, the need for small government, her independence of “Big Oil” and therefore her independence of big business, her support for the military and her determination as a political leader “to act in the best interests of the people”. This is the Sarah Palin identifiable by her supporters.

Is this the real Sarah Palin? And if it is, is it inconsistent with her also being shallow, ignorant, stupid, under-educated, unlettered, incapable and yet incredibly arrogant? Her book has been fact-checked by the Associated Press, which found nothing in it that could be described as wrong. The “errors” they found were trivialities, matters of interpretation, so that in sum and substance it is apparently a book that, whatever might be left out, provides an accurate description of what she has done and who she would like us to think she is.

Does Sarah Palin Have What It Takes to Be President?

During the 2008 campaign much was made of Barack Obama’s lack of executive experience in comparison with Sarah Palin. Running a major enterprise, such as the executive branch of the American government, requires a kind of savvy in using the various levers of power to achieve one’s ends. Even more important, it seemed to me, was to have the necessary political judgment that could be brought to bear on the decisions that would inevitably have to be made.

Political judgment is the prime requisite of someone at the top of a political system. Do we want this person rather than some other to be making the important decisions about the most diverse array of issues that no one, absolutely no one, can ever hope to fully understand for themselves? They must make the final decisions based, as they must always be, on incomplete information about the present, and with no certain information at all about what will happen in the future. It is the knowledge one has and the instincts one has developed that tell. The question becomes, if Sarah Palin does actually seek the nomination in 2012, whether she is the right one for the job.

Her book is therefore in many respects an outline of her political past. It is a review of many of the decisions she has made as a sampler of the kind of President she would be. It discusses her philosophical position on a number of questions which will be major matters for decision for a President having to deal with the world as it will be in 2013 and beyond.

The Presidency is no place for learning on the job. What you bring along on day one so far as philosophy and instinct are concerned is more or less what you take home when your term is passed. It is the visceral judgments that will tell.

Since what I know best are the economic questions she will face, I will dwell on what she writes on these. They are, in many respects, an indicator of how she might be expected to act in areas far from the explicitly economic, because there is an entire political philosophy bundled up in how these sorts of questions are framed and answered. But in looking at her approach, I will also focus on what I see as a weakness for Sarah Palin as a candidate for the Presidency. But first she must speak for herself:

Within six months of taking office, President Obama put the United States on track to double its already staggering national deficit. The new debt, which will burden future generations, is immoral …

Where is all the money going to come from? It can come from only three places. Government borrows it, government prints it, or government taxes the people for it …

We tried growing government back in the 1930s, and it didn’t work then either. Massive government spending programs and protectionist economic policies actually helped turn a recession into the Great Depression. New Deal-like spending plans aren’t the only blast from the past we see today. With the government takeover of parts of the banking industry and the auto industry, we see the return of corporatism—government collusion and co-option of big business.

No one person is smart enough to control and predict markets. The free market is just that: free to rise or fall, shrink or expand, based on conditions that are often outside of human control. Government interference in market cycles is just as dangerous as government-directed programs that encourage permanent dependency. In both cases the rewards for responsible behavior and penalties for irresponsible behavior are removed from the scene. This is the lesson I tried to convey to Bristol when we discussed her plans for the future. [emphasis added]

This is, as economics goes, remarkably sophisticated but given the Keynesian semi-dirigiste kinds of societies in which we live, where government direct involvement is often seen by substantial majorities as the central component of almost every solution to social problems, it is well outside current norms. That five pages previously she has quoted Thomas Sowell gives me a fair idea of where such ideas may have come from. But it is not that she read such concepts in Sowell that matters (if that is indeed what happened) but that when she did come across them, those were the ideas that stuck and remained. Sowell is one of the most articulate conservative intellectuals of our time (and interestingly for me, his first book, like my own, was on Say’s Law). That she would find an affinity with Sowell, understand with perfect clarity what he had written and then condense the points so well, is entirely to her credit. She (as well as he) may be wrong. But these are crucially important ideas that, should current policies fail and new ones be required, may make the difference between prolonging recessionary conditions even further and the ability to recover from what began as a relatively mild recession, however much commotion there may have been at the time.

It is that these ideas resonate and make sense to her that matters. Being President is not being the head of a fact-finding commission. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room. The role is to make decisions in real time about issues that have become boiling hot. What you are looking for is someone whose value system, background capacities and general outlook on the world will keep the community safe in a dangerous and unpredictable world. It is to answer these kinds of questions towards which this book has been directed. Sarah Palin’s aim is to demonstrate that she is just the kind of person in whose hands the American public can safely place its trust.

But let me come back to the words, “this is the lesson I tried to convey to Bristol”. Bristol is her daughter, and an important part of Sarah Palin’s discourse on the economy and other matters is presented as part of a dialogue between her and members of her family. One can say it is in the Socratic tradition where Plato’s ideas are detailed as part of a similar sort of dialogue. It may be that this is the means to make one’s thoughts clearer to others who are not used to the kinds of more technical ideas found in more technically in-depth works (I suspect more people will read Going Rogue than have read the collected works of Thomas Sowell).

But this does have a negative side. For anyone with an academic background (such as, for example, the kinds of people who might read an article such as this), there is a certain cornpone tone that keeps rubbing away at the serious intent. The “you betcha” of the campaign carries over into the book. She writes, “I joked, ‘Dang oil companies’”, and later on she says, “‘Dang, I must be getting old’, I mumbled”. And her use of “so” as an emphatic is so persistent and consistent (as in “the green grass smelled so good”) that I have little doubt that whatever help she may have had, this book is written in her own voice.

And for no reason at all that I can see, other than to show a kind of independence that can, in my view, do her no good (but what do I know in comparison with her about political calculation?), she wrote:

I believed in the evidence from microevolution—that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time. But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings—thinking, loving beings—originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees; I believed that we came about through a random process, but were created by God.

Not one decision an American President must make will depend on their views on the mechanics of human evolution. Such views will, however, alienate significant portions of the public on whose good will she would depend, since this is one of those issues where sharp ideological lines have been drawn which are not paralleled by the usual Left–Right of politics. With this statement she is offering hostages to fortune that bespeak a character that is far from the girl-next-door sweetness the rest of the book portrays. She has strong views and plays to win.

And is she running for President? She has branded herself as a “Commonsense Conservative”. You tell me what her intentions are, based on this passage which comes at almost the very end of the book:

As I write this, Commonsense Conservatives are out of power in D.C. But that does not discourage me. I think of Reagan in 1976, when his conservative politics and his political future were declared all but dead. How did he turn things around in four years? By speaking to ordinary Americans about the ideas that bind us together.

These ideas resonate just as strongly today. Encourage the free market. Lower taxes. Get government out of the way. Put the people’s money back into their hands so that they can reinvest. Empower them to be generous. Respect honest work. Strengthen families. But because these are commonsense ideas, they will be ignored by politicians until their employers—the American people—make them listen.

Will Sarah Palin be President? Will she be the one to “make them listen”? This we will only know sometime in 2012, possibly not until the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Maybe we won’t even know until 2016.

More important, however, is should she be President? Is she up to the job (assuming anyone is)? That is a different matter that may never be resolved unless she finally is, and perhaps not even then. In the meantime, Going Rogue is her early manifesto, written to put her back on a pathway towards this undoubted goal. The book has done exactly that and has done it extraordinarily well in spite of the enormous obstacles that have been thrown in her way. She is nobody’s fool, not to be underestimated by anyone.

Steven Kates teaches Economics at RMIT University in Melbourne.