Palin and Obama--What Really is Wisdom?

Palin and Obama--What Really is Wisdom?

By Victor Davis Hanson - September 22, 2008

Palin vs. Obama

The race unfortunately has been framed the last two weeks by Democrats as one of Obama versus Palin. That will stop as Obama realizes he loses should it continue. Nevertheless, the comparison of the respective experiences of a McCain and Obama is so much in favor of the former, that it requires no discussion. So I turn to Palin, given the charges that she is unfit and clueless.

Is Palin Tough?

I have been asked by many why I have such confidence in a rookie Alaskan governor, given the rigors of the campaign to follow. (Many Republican pundits apparently do not.) I think we are starting to see the answers to that question. The proverbial "they" hacked into her private email accounts. They swore that her daughter was the real mother of her Down Syndrome baby. They sent legions of reporters and lawyers to Alaska to dig up dirt. They wrote columns suggesting that she was stupid, uneducated, dishonest, a liar, and worse still. All this was the work of moralists, who, in their more extreme manifestations, tried to flood a Chicago radio station to disrupt guests, who doctored photos of McCain to subvert his portrait, who disgraced the Atlantic brand by trafficking in pregnancy rumors, and who now publish the private email of Palin.

And? She is still smiling and apparently unmoved. Had they done this to Biden, he would have gone berserk. Wait--they didn't do this to Biden, and he seems near berserk in his daily gaffes.

So who is really experienced?

The point is this: I think it is much harder for a mother of three or four in an out-of-the-way Alaskan town to get elected to city council and the mayorship, then take on the entire Republican establishment and get elected governor than it is for a Barack Obama to emerge from Chicago politics into the Illinois state house and later Senate. The qualities that allowed a Palin to succeed without the power spouse, the identity politics, the Ivy-League cachet, the fawning New York editors and DC insider-press will ensure she does not implode on the campaign trail--and won't in office either.

Barack Obama, in contrast, on numerous occasions has complained how tiring, how hard, how unfair, how racist the campaign has turned out to be; Palin never. I could not imagine Obama doing his hope and change thing in the Senate while holding a one-year-old and checking on four more children at home. And I wager shooting a moose or trying to navigate a snowmobile in the chill is a little harder than shooting baskets in one's down time or offering riffs to the fainting at a Beverly Hills get together or Presidio Heights fundraiser.

Again my point? That the much deprecated "life experience" is every bit as important to leadership as is abstract learning. Both complement each other, but so far I think Palin understands the symbiotic world of word and the world of deed far more so than does Obama. And again, we are not talking about McCain, where the contrast only widens-and is far more important.

Word and Deed, Head and Arm

Let me be a bit more specific still and indulge a bit from what I saw of these two worlds. I spent nine years as an undergraduate and graduate student- three at UC Santa Cruz, four at Stanford University, and two in Athens, Greece. In that near decade, I met all sorts of supposedly brilliant professors, undergraduates, and graduate students in the humanities--Ivy-League Ph.Ds, whiz-kids with Oxford and Cambridge degrees, Rhodes Scholars, famous archaeologists, accomplished classicists and historians, well-known humanities scholars, and Oxbridge Dons with landmark books on history and philology. In addition, the last five years I have worked at Stanford again, and often have met another array of brilliant entrepreneurs, in fields as diverse as finance, law, medicine, engineering, and computers.

I contrast all this with growing up my first 18 years in southwestern Fresno County on a 120-acre tree and vine farm, where for most of my life I knew only neighbors who worked the soil, and survived the tough environment of the local schools. And then once again from age 26 to my mid-forties, I farmed as well as taught, and so I had a good idea of what the highly educated did during the day, and what the farmers and small businesspeople did on weekends and late afternoons.

Two conclusions I drew from all of this. While civilization advances on the shoulders of the educated, it is carried along by the legs of the muscular classes. And the latter are not there by some magical IQ test or a natural filtering process that separates the wheat from the chaff, but rather by either birth, or, as often, by their preference for action and the physical world.

Second, I have seen no difference in intelligence levels between those who inhabit the world of the physical and those who cultivate the life of the mind. That is, the most brilliant Greek philologists seemed no more impressive in their aptitude than the fellow who could take apart the transmission of an old Italian Oliver tractor, fix it, and put it back together--without a manual. And I knew three or four who could. The inept mechanic seemed no more dull than the showy graduate student who could not distinguish an articular infinitive from an accusative of respect.

My seventy-year old Austrian professor who, off the cuff, could recite the lettering peculiarities of some 100 or so Athenian inscriptions on stone was brilliant-but no more intuitive or impressive than my grandfather who at 86 could scan 100 rows of vines under irrigation, instantly access how many acre feet of water were in the field, how many more needed, and then screw up or down an iron gate on a 20-foot standpipe and ensure the ditch water reached the end of each row--and only the end of each row.

You know all this in your hearts

For most of you readers, all this is trite and self-evident. But apparently not for hundreds in politics, the media, the universities, Hollywood, and the foundations who seem to think that a fumbling nervous Obama in interviews, who grasps for a word and utters vacuous platitudes is "really" contemplative, like his Harvard Law professors; but when a Sarah Palin seems nervous under scrutiny from a pseudo-professorial, glasses-on-the-lower-nose Charlie Gibson, she is clearly an empty head with an Idaho BA.

A Ronald Reagan knew more about human nature, and thus what drives the Soviet Union than did all the Ivy-League Soviet specialists that surrounded Jimmy Carter-much less the Sally Quins and Maureen Dowds of that age. We in America, unlike the Europeans, know this intuitively, grasp that a Harry Truman figured out the Russian communists far better than did the Harvard-educated aristocrat FDR.

A Sense of Balance

I am not calling for yokelism, or a proponent of false-populism. Rather, I wish to remind everyone that there are two fonts of wisdom: formal education, and the tragic world of physical challenge and ordeal. Both are necessary to be broadly educated. Familiarity with Proust or Kant is impressive, but not more impressive than the ability to wire your house or unclog the labyrinth of pipes beneath it.

In this regard, I think Palin can speak, and reason, and navigate with bureaucrats and lawyers as well as can Obama; but he surely cannot understand hunters, and mechanics and carpenters like she can. And a Putin or a Chavez or a Wall-Street speculator that runs a leverage brokerage house is more a hunter than a professor or community organizer. Harvard Law School is not as valuable a touchstone to human nature as raising five children in Alaska while going toe-to-toe with pretty tough, hard-nose Alaskan males.

What is wisdom?

Not necessarily degrees, glibness, poise, or factual recall, but the ability to understand human nature. And that requires two simple things: an inductive method of reasoning to look at the world empirically, and a body of knowledge and experience to draw on for guidance.

Palin in empirical fashion bucked the Republican establishment and the old-boy network when she thought it was unreasonable; Obama never figured out or at least never questioned Tony Rezko or the Chicago machine, Trinity Church or the Pelosi-Kennedy liberal mantra--unless it proved advantageous. Palin draws on everything from position papers on ANWR to how to keep four screaming kids fed and bathed; Obama on Harvard Law Review and dispensing more public money to more Chicago interest groups.

That's a simplification, but also an answer to the old Euripidean question "What is wisdom?"

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals from BloomsburyBooks. You can reach him by e-mailing

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