By Bret Stehens*
If nothing else, the media meltdown over Sarah Palin’s candidacy for the vice presidency has exposed the not-unsuspected truth that, when it comes to historical ignorance and political amnesia, our cultural panjandrums are in a class by themselves.
ABC’s Charlie Gibson is only the latest to offer himself upon the altar of self-parody with his pop-quizzing of the Alaska governor during their interview last week.
Gibson: “Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?”
Palin: “In what respect, Charlie?”
Which was a sensible answer, given that no higher authority than Jacob Weisberg of Slate has counted six versions of the thing (including “absence of any functioning doctrine at all”). Further pressed on the subject, Gov. Palin explained that “what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism,” which better sums up the gist of Bush policy than Mr. Gibson’s cramped definition of the doctrine as “anticipatory self-defense.”
And so the candidate, without so much as the benefit of a junior year abroad, managed (maybe luckily, though luck is often a function of wit) to get the better of the anchorman, Princeton ’65.
Still, Mr. Gibson’s high-toned condescension pales next to that of former Dick Gephardt speechwriter Matthew Dallek, who managed a loud guffaw over Mrs. Palin’s supposed inexperience in an interview with Politico.com. “It would be one thing if she had only been governor a year and a half, but prior to that she had not had major experience.”
Mr. Dallek is also a presidential historian, so he must have some acquaintance with the career of Calvin Coolidge. When Coolidge was named to Warren Harding’s ticket in 1920, he had been governor of Massachusetts for less than two years. Aside from a largely powerless stint as lieutenant governor and other smaller legislative posts, his chief previous government experience was as mayor of Northampton, to which he was first elected in 1910 by a Wasilla-like margin of 1,597 to 1,409.
Another year-and-a-half governor to be nominated for the vice presidency: Teddy Roosevelt. It’s true that TR, as a former assistant secretary of the Navy, had more foreign policy experience than Mrs. Palin, though one wonders what today we would make of a candidate whose proud boast was that he had killed an enemy soldier “like a jackrabbit.”
Then there is Harry Truman, to whom Mrs. Palin compared herself at the Republican convention. “He had only to open his mouth and his origins were plain,” wrote David McCullough in his biography of the 33rd president, in lines that might also have been written about Mrs. Palin. “It wasn’t just that he came from a particular part of the country, geographically, but from a specific part of the American experience, an authentic pioneer background, and a specific place in the American imagination.”
The Truman comparison seems especially to rankle Mrs. Palin’s critics, perhaps because in many respects it rings true. Take vetting. John McCain may have met Mrs. Palin only once before he offered her the job, but Franklin Roosevelt admitted “I hardly know Truman” in July 1944, the same month the “Senator from Pendergast” was put on the Democratic ticket.
Or take foreign policy experience. It’s fair to say that Mrs. Palin has none, and the McCain campaign should drop the transparent pretense that Alaska’s proximity to Russia, or her nominal responsibility for the state’s National Guard, gives her some.
Then again, what did Truman know? “Truman had no experience in relations with Britain or Russia, no firsthand knowledge of Churchill or Stalin,” writes Mr. McCullough. “He didn’t know his own Secretary of State, more than to say hello. . . . Roosevelt, Truman would tell [daughter] Margaret privately, ‘never did talk to me confidentially about the war, or about foreign affairs or what he had in mind for peace after the war.’ He was unprepared, bewildered.”
Truman, it’s true, had served bravely as an army captain in World War I; he knew the nature of war. But his chief recommendation as a U.S. senator was as a good-government type who bucked his home state’s machine politics (though not so frontally as Mrs. Palin bucked hers) and fought waste, fraud and corruption in military spending.
This is closer to Mrs. Palin’s turf. But why should her critics even care about her qualifications? Vice presidential candidates are always chosen with a view toward strengthening and broadening a ticket. The job is political; the office is mainly ceremonial. Recently, the vice presidency has developed some of the functions of a shadow presidency, which seemed to disturb liberals in the days when Dick Cheney was suspected of pulling George Bush’s strings. Shouldn’t they be vastly relieved that no such scenario will likely play out in a McCain administration?
Of course there is the issue of being a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency, and of Mr. McCain’s now having a fairly old heart. Doesn’t that weigh against Mrs. Palin’s candidacy?
Maybe. But as a man who knows whereof he speaks recently observed, “You can argue that nobody is ready to be president. You can argue that even if you’ve been vice president for eight years, that no one can be fully ready for the pressures of the office.”
Wise words, and historically true. If even Bill Clinton can offer such a benediction to an inexperienced candidate, surely Mrs. Palin’s critics can do so as well.
* Bret Stehens, journalist, writes the journal’s “Global View” column on foreign affairs, which runs every Thuesday in the U.S. and is also published in the European and Asia editions of the paper.
1. Article published originally in the Wall Street Journal