Sarah Is From Alaska; Trump Is From Mars
A good journalist should be like an umpire. Not dispassionate, necessarily, as theatrics have their place in baseball and the news business, but definitely balanced and impartial.
“No cheering in the press box,” advises an old newsroom adage. Although that may sound quaint today, I’ve tried to live up to that credo. It has sometimes led me in directions I didn’t expect to go.
The most unlikely might be the columns defending Sarah Palin. Yes, she’s an inviting target: vain, ill-informed, always handy with a malapropism or goofy historical reference. She’s fond of quoting Ronald Reagan, for instance, even while advocating policies that would have appalled the secular saint of modern conservatism.
Yet, Palin’s many flaws were partially obscured, at least for me, by the nasty news coverage of her. I don’t mean Tina Fey, whose famous sendup of Palin was hilarious, and not altogether unsympathetic. I’m referencing my fellow political writers who couldn’t stopping mocking Palin when she burst onto the national stage in 2008. The admonition against cheering in the press box doesn’t necessarily mean that booing in the press gallery is never warranted. But with Sarah Palin we went overboard. We chose sides.
This was evident in the double standard when it came to covering Palin’s opponent. The establishment media fixated on Palin’s hair, her glasses, the money she spent on clothes, and her high school basketball nickname: Sarah Barracuda. Nothing was off-limits: not her sex life; not her kids’ sex life. Respectable news outlets speculated in print that the mother of Palin’s special needs child was really Palin’s daughter Bristol. Although this was a physical impossibility, no news organization apologized to Palin—or to John McCain, the man who chose her as his running mate.
Once we decided Palin was a dunce, it was open season on her. But not on Joe Biden, even after his astonishingly weak performance in the vice presidential debate. Biden mistakenly asserted that McCain voted with Barack Obama on a budget resolution and claimed that McCain voted against a test ban treaty “that every Republican has supported” when in fact 51 out of 55 GOP senators opposed the ban.
Biden preemptively gave Pakistan intercontinental missiles, claimed the U.S. and France had “kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon,” and denied that Obama ever said he’d sit down with Iran’s leaders. Those claims were hokum—and the last one was weird: When Biden was running in the primaries, he criticized Obama over his Iran gambit, calling him “naïve.”
The supposed foreign policy expert, Biden sought to school the rube from Alaska by telling her, “With Afghanistan, facts matter.” He then asserted that the U.S. spends “more money in three weeks on combat [operations] in Iraq than we spent on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan.” Actually, Biden’s math was off by about 2,000 percent.
A former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Biden also delivered an odd homily on the constitutional history of the vice presidency that was notable for (a) its hostility to Dick Cheney; and (b) being wrong in every detail. It was as though Biden were channeling John Belushi in Animal House. (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!”)
Although I felt compelled to write about this comparison, few of my colleagues joined me. They were too busy trying to out-snark each over Palin’s irrelevant observation that Russian islands are visible from some islands in Alaska and her inability to tell Katie Couric the name of a single newspaper or magazine she read to stay informed. Now it turns out, thanks to Donald Trump’s successful courtship of Sarah Barracuda, that my pals in the press were onto something.
Or maybe Sarah Palin has changed—for the worse. One thing seems clear: In endorsing Donald Trump, which she did in full-throated glory last week, Palin forsook the people and the principles she claimed were dearest to her heart. I’ll mention four.
Reagan: When Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” liberal milquetoasts reached for their smelling salts. But after drawing lines with the Russians and engaging them from a position of strength, Reagan reached historic nuclear arms reduction deals with Mikhail Gorbachev and helped midwife an end to the empire he detested—all while being convinced that the people of Eastern Europe, including the Russians, are better off for it.
Donald Trump has a different emphasis. He has praised Russian strongman Vladimir Putin for—what else?—his high domestic poll numbers; is untroubled by the Putin regime’s implication in political murders; and finds no fault with the Obama administration’s outsourcing of Mideast policy to Putin, who promptly interceded militarily on behalf of the Syrian dictator the U.S. wants deposed.
“Ronald Reagan talked to Gorbachev, but I never heard a word of praise,” McCain said. “All I heard from Ronald Reagan was ‘take down this wall.’” All you hear from Trump is that he wants to build a wall. And make Mexico pay for it. Trump is the un-Reagan.
McCain: McCain chose Palin as his 2008 running mate not because he thought she’d galvanized social conservatives in the GOP base—although she did—but because she had challenged the Republican establishment in Alaska. He considered her something of a kindred spirit. For her part, Palin was always personally loyal to McCain even after she famously went “rogue.”
Scott Conroy, the journalist who has covered Palin the longest and with the most insight, wrote about this recently. In “Sarah From Alaska,” the book Conroy co-authored, he writes about the speech she wanted to give when the ticket lost, and how laudatory it was of McCain. Conroy now notes how incongruous that speech would have been with the one Palin gave endorsing Trump. The GOP front-runner is the man who disparaged McCain’s military service last summer, calling the Navy officer who spent 5 ½ years in a North Vietnamese prison “not a war hero.”
“I like people that weren’t captured, okay,” said the man who cited his “foot thing” as the reason he procured military deferments during the Vietnam War. Trump is the un-McCain.
People with disabilities: The most impressive part of Palin’s 2008 campaign performance wasn’t her terrific acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It was how she championed the rights of the disabled, both privately and publicly. Women with Down syndrome children lined up to meet her in town after town. To them, she was a rock star. She never disappointed them, dispensing hugs and empathy everywhere she went.
Her newest dance partner? Oh yes, when he’s not disparaging women, Mexicans, and Muslims, Donald Trump openly mocks people with physical disabilities. He’s the un-Palin—or, at least, the Palin with thought we knew.
Conservatism itself: Pro-life, pro-law enforcement, pro-gun, pro-oil, pro-military, pro-American Exceptionalism—Palin’s bona fides were perfect.
“Drill, baby, drill” was her answer to environmentalists’ concerns about global warming. As for Donald Trump, his Republican credentials are quite thin. He’s given the GOP money in the last few years, but before that he gave it to Democrats. He donated millions to Democratic Party causes and candidates and champions of big government incursions into the marketplace, including in health care. He’s the un-conservative.