September 05, 2008
The Palin choice-3: The danger of picking an unknown
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
One factor that the McCain camp may have used in selecting Palin may have been the sense that she was a fresh face that would generate interest in a way that a more familiar figure would not. The announcement of Palin certainly did that. It immediately shifted the discussion on Friday away from the hugely successful Democratic convention and Obama's excellent speech on Thursday to the topic of Palin. If that was a tactical goal of the McCain campaign, it succeeded.
But you live by the headline, you die by the headline, and the Palin announcement was itself almost immediately replaced by coverage of hurricane Gustav (hurricanes provide great visuals and human drama and will always trump political maneuvering) and the latter completely dominated news coverage over the Labor Day weekend. On my travels during those three days, whenever I briefly turned on the TV for news, they were having all hurricane all the time and no Palin. She did not even appear on the Sunday talk shows.
While fresh faces undoubtedly generate excitement, it is always dangerous to introduce an unknown figure into a major national campaign at such a late stage. The strong possibility exists that it will be followed by a string of embarrassing revelations about the person and family members, as has been the case here. This is not because she or her family is bad but because they are human.
All of us who have reached middle age, lived full lives, and have families have had things happen in the past that we might not think are big deals because we have lived through them, but if suddenly revealed to the world might prove embarrassing and have to be explained away. For almost all of us, what saves us is that nobody is interested in hearing about our past lives and no one is interested in finding out about them either.
But in the case of Palin, she is so new to the national scene that hordes of media are going to examine every tiny aspect of her past life to get a better idea of who she is. And they are going to find out things that she herself might have forgotten or wish would remain unknown. Palin and her family are going to be put under the microscope and I feel sorry for them because all kinds of information will come out now about them that will have to be explained away.
There will be well-meaning people who have known her in the past who will want to get their few moments of fame by recounting anecdotes about her, not realizing that these can be damaging. There may be people who dislike her for some reason or are jealous and have harbored grievances over things she did long ago, and will now relish the chance to get their revenge by revealing or even making stuff up. There will be those who will use her new high visibility to advance their own cause, like the Alaskan Independence Party (some of whose members want to put secession from the union to a vote) and to which Palin's husband once belonged and which she seems to have sympathies for.
Even if these stories turn out be false or malicious or exaggerated, fending them off is going to consume the energy of the McCain campaign. As these things come to light and have to be explained away, it will divert the campaign from its message.
The only way to avoid such embarrassments is to nominate an unmarried, childless, orphan who was an only child and preferably one whose hometown was obliterated by some natural disaster, taking with it almost everyone who knew the candidate in their formative years. The nominee should also preferably have in their adult years been a Trappist monk with its associated isolation and strong emphasis on being silent.
The advantage of having been in public life for a long time (like Joe Biden) is that although nobody gets really excited by the choice, almost all of your dirty linen has already been aired and you have survived, and people are likely to think that there is nothing new worth digging for in your distant past. Only deliberate leaks of new information by people seeking to scuttle your candidacy are likely to be damaging. If McCain had picked any of the well-known candidates in public life, there would have been far fewer problems.
For example, Rudy Giuliani has all kinds of things in his past like his extramarital affairs, his association with the corrupt Bernie Kerik, and even dressing in women's clothing. If he had been unknown and picked as the running mate and these things had then been revealed, he would likely have had to quit. But because these things were already well known before he ran for president, they would not have the same impact if he had been chosen as the running mate. His campaign for the presidency imploded because he was simply a terrible candidate.
By contrast, when Geraldine Ferraro was picked as Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, newly revealed allegations about her husband's shady business dealings suddenly came to light and dogged the campaign. The same thing happened when somebody from the past revealed Thomas Eagleton's hitherto unknown shock treatment for depression after he had been selected as George McGovern's running mate in 1972.
So unless they commit new transgressions (like Larry Craig or John Edwards or Mark Foley), long-time public figures are a safe choice. But with Palin, everything about her and her family's life will be new. I hope she and her family is braced for the kind of close scrutiny that none of us would enjoy.
Next: How well was she vetted before being nominated?
POST SCRIPT: An odd speech
Though the first draft of Sarah Palin's speech was written by others even before she was selected and had to be rapidly modified because it was "too masculine" (whatever that means), it was very well-delivered. She is clearly comfortable in the spotlight, articulate, and knows how to engage her audience. She reads from a teleprompter much better than John McCain, whose speech on Thursday was more stiff and awkward.
I was, however, startled by the content of Palin's speech and its relentlessly harsh, mocking, smug, sarcastic, and ridiculing tone and the blatant falsehoods it contained which, although the crowd seemed to love it, has the danger of coming back to haunt her. Since she immediately followed an equally long and harsh speech by Rudy Giuliani, the entire 75 minutes that began at 10:00 pm seemed to be relentless Obama bashing at a largely schoolyard-taunt level, and made her seem like some kind of pit-bull, although she clearly relishes creating a tough image of herself.
The demeaning of the work of community organizers by the evangelical governor of Alaska was curious in a country where that kind of local civic activity is valued as good citizenship. As some have been quick to point out, it was after all Pontius Pilate who was a governor and Jesus who was a community organizer.
I was chiefly puzzled by two things: There was no real introduction to tell us about her (after Giuliani ended his speech, he simply walked off and she simply walked on) and her speech seemed to be aimed at the rabid partisans in the convention hall who were already her ardent supporters, not at winning over those undecideds who might have tuned in to the speech looking for her to give them confidence in her ability to serve as president if needed. As one commentator said: "Whoever the speech writer was, it became apparent rather quickly they were going for zingers, barbs, and clever one-liners, and not really thinking much about how the non-bloodthirsty segment of the viewing audience would feel about it."
I now know what happened. Giuliani's speech was to have been followed by another speech (presumably a warm introduction of Palin by someone who knows her well) and then a four-minute soft-focus biographical video telling her life story and emphasizing her achievements and qualifications. That positive and uplifting tone would have at least provided a welcome change after Giuliani and softened her image.
But what happened was that the media-loving Giuliani so relished his time in the spotlight that he added ad-libbed ridicule-laden applause lines to his vetted speech, causing him to run well over his allotted time, resulting in the introduction and biopic getting pulled at the last minute. Despite that, Palin still ended 15 minutes over the scheduled end.
Lesson: Never put an egomaniac before your main speaker in a tightly scheduled program.