Sarah Palin and the Politics of Elitism

Much of the elite conservative punditry, those well-bred and well-paid right-wing columnists who write for the upscale opinion journals and the opinion pages of the “big” newspapers, have been having a field day this election season reminding us of the alleged shortcomings of Gov. Sarah Palin.

George Will is only the latest of the breed to join in this gleeful piling-on. On Thursday, in a column in The Washington Post (” Call Him John the Careless“), Will chastised Sen. McCain for his “carelessness” in choosing Palin as his running mate:

Did McCain, who seems to think that Palin's never having attended a “Georgetown cocktail party ” is sufficient qualification for the vice presidency, lift an eyebrow when she said that vice presidents “are in charge of the United States Senate “? She may have been tailoring her narrative to her audience of third-graders, who do not know that vice presidents have no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes.

Well.

And I thought our schools were failing. I'm relieved to learn that third-graders, “who do not know” that the “only” function of the vice president is to break ties in the Senate know more about the constitutional duties of the office than Mr. Will — he, with his Princeton Ph.D., who does attend Georgetown cocktail parties.

As a matter of fact, here is what the Constitution says about the office of vice president:

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.

President of the Senate? That sounds like the vice president is “in charge”. Senators have no power to bar the vice president from the Senate or prevent her from presiding. And in that capacity, she could set the agenda, decide whom to recognize and whom not to recognize, and what motions to permit to come to a vote. True, the rulings of the chair could be challenged and overturned. But if the vice president set her mind to it, she could bring all business in the Senate to a grinding halt — which, come to think of it, might not be such a bad idea.

The elitist conservative trashing of Sarah Palin started the very day McCain announced her as his running mate. A former Bush speechwriter, the neoconservative David Frum, threw out the first smear, characterizing Palin as an “untested small-town mayor” — as if she had never been chair of Alaska's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission or governor of the state. This was quickly picked up by Obama supporters who described Palin as a “small-town mayor” every time they mentioned her name.

Soon other pundits from the Right chimed in: Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, called the Palin pick “bullshit” (when she thought people weren't listening — later she went public with her denunciations of Palin); David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, labeled Palin a “cancer” on the Republican Party; Kathleen Parker demanded that Palin resign from the ticket; Christopher Hitchens went David Frum one better and characterized Palin as “the former Miss Wasilla”, not even giving her credit for serving as city councilwoman and mayor; and Christopher Buckley, son of the late William F. Buckley Jr., who inherited not only his father's looks, but also his arrogance and pretentious writing style — he went all the way: Palin was so bad (“an embarrassment, and a dangerous one at that”) he endorsed Obama.

I got to thinking about all this, because their arguments don't make any sense. They all damn Sarah Palin for her alleged ineptitude, incompetence and lack of experience, while extolling Obama's supposed virtues, particularly, to quote Buckley (who actually stole the phrase, without attribution, from Charles Krauthammer), his “first-class temperament and first-class intellect”.

But Palin has an outstanding record of both personal accomplishment and consistent adherence to the conservative principles these columnists claim to believe in. She has managed a business, a city, a regulatory commission, a state, and a family — which is a lot more than any of the other candidates for the top two offices have managed (although Biden, as a single father, did manage a family). She has overcome entrenched special interests and the leadership of her own party to cut government waste and taxes. And, at least until she began running for vice president, she had the highest approval rating of any governor in the country.

What's not to like about her? Oh yeah, there's the matter of one of her answers in the Katie Couric interview. It sounded like she was trying to get all the talking points her handlers had crammed into her head out in one sentence. No, I don't blame Couric for asking a “gotcha” question — a candidate for an office as high as the vice presidency should expect such questions (unless, of course, that candidate is Barack Obama). But I do blame the McCain campaign for trying to turn Palin into something she's not.

But Obama offers nothing beyond his “temperament” and “intellect”. He has, as even George Will has admitted, “never run so much as a Dairy Queen”, and all of his public pronouncements have consisted of either socialist clichés or promises of grandiose schemes that would bankrupt the country. Even while endorsing him, Buckley “secularly prays” that Obama won't keep his campaign promises.

So what are these conservative pundits thinking?

Buckley, no doubt unintentionally, provided a clue when he wrote of Obama, “As for his intellect, well, he's a Harvard man.” It was that sentence that gave his game away — that, and the little Latin phrases that rather pointlessly pepper his pretentious prose. It brought back memories of something he had written 25 years ago.

In an article in Esquire titled “Viet Guilt”, Buckley wrote about how, as a 19-year-old Yale student during the Vietnam War, he showed up at his draft physical armed with a letter from his physician describing a childhood asthma condition. He shuffled along, “trying to look wan and tubercular”, he said. As a result, young Buckley was excused from military service, as were the vast majority of the sons of the wealthy and well-connected of that era.

Buckley wrote about his “guilt at not having participated”, although from other things he said there and in interviews with Washington Post reporter Myra MacPherson for her book Long Time Passing, it sounded more like regret at having missed out on some great adventure. (You can read about one of my great “adventures” here, but it's in a newspaper archive, so you'll have to pay for it — I don't own it.)

But Buckley should have felt guilty. He was a supporter of both the war in Vietnam and the military draft, and was still supporting the draft and foreign military adventures when he was interviewed by MacPherson in 1984. He had no problem with sending young men and women off to pointless wars as long as he wasn't one of them.

So what did Buckley do to try to assuage his faux guilt? Says MacPherson: “Buckley made a few halfhearted attempts to do something for veterans by trying to volunteer at the VA, but seemed to view the veterans as largely in need of remedial help. 'I offered to teach English or writing or something mildly useful.'”

Nothing Jane Fonda ever said or did made me quite as angry as that statement. It distills the very essence of the arrogance, self-importance, and sense of intellectual and moral superiority that characterizes members of the cultural elite to which Buckley and his fellow pundits belong. I, as well as most other veterans, never faulted anyone for not going to Vietnam. But we also don't like being patronized by those who didn't go. To me, Buckley's message was loud and clear: only the stupid, uneducated and unsophisticated got sent to Vietnam. People like himself, those with a “first-class temperament and first-class intellect”, did not get sent.

And there you have it. That is why Buckley and his fellow pundits despise Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin is University of Idaho; Chris Buckley is Yale. Sarah Palin's son is an infantryman serving in Iraq; Chris Buckley dodged the draft during the Vietnam war. Sarah Palin has embraced her special needs child; Chris Buckley refuses to have anything to do with his. Sarah Palin is the Alaska outback and small-town America; Chris Buckley is Greenwich, the Upper East Side and Georgetown. How dare one of the great unwashed, the graduate of a lowly state university — a woman married to an oil rig worker, for Christ's sake! — aspire to the second highest office in the land?

Doesn't she know those positions are reserved for the elite?


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