Friday, November 27, 2009

Star Tangled Banner: looking for 'a downright moron'

Following is a copy of my column Star Tangled Banner, which runs occasionally in The Badger newspaper in Saskatchewan, Canada:

Why electoral politics in the U.S. 
is a search for ‘a downright moron’ 

In the last couple of weeks, the Sarah Palin Show has really moved into high gear here in the States. 

On Nov. 16, Sarah enjoyed what was probably her biggest celebrity moment since the GOP convention speech a year before: a guest appearance on the Oprah show. As television theater goes this was PG-13 all the way, a series of mild questions answered with the paint-by-numbers responses Sarah always gives when she stays on script.

Still, this was Oprah, so all the slightly interesting questions and answers were quickly relayed throughout the nation. Perhaps the most enlightening came when Oprah asked if son-outlaw Levi Johnston would be invited to Thanksgiving dinner with his son and baby mama. Seemingly caught without a script on that one, Sarah squirmed and mumbled something about “Well, sure, he knows he would be welcome.” Right.

Levi, as it turns out, was busy. On Nov. 20 we got our first look at photos of his nude (semi-nude?) photo spread in Playgirl Magazine, all that flat-stomached, tattooed flesh on display. Ha, Sarah. Yo, Oprah. Take that.

Neither Sarah nor Levi had the biggest day, however. That prize would have to go to Sherry Johnston, Levi’s mom, who appeared in court in Alaska to be sentenced to five years prison for selling oxycontin — hillbilly heroin — to a police informant. She, presumably, was not invited to Thanksgiving with the former governor.

Taken all together, it’s safe to guess that this sideshow managed to command more headlines, electrons and attention that did our famously media-savvy president, Barack Obama. Perhaps that is understandable, since all he had on his plate were things like a crucial Senate vote on health care reform, a decision about what strategy to follow in Afghanistan, and dealing with criticism that followed his decision to bow when meeting the Japanese emperor. (He would have been safer to follow the precedent of President George Bush the Elder, who simply threw up on the Japanese prime minister when he went visiting in 1992).

You might be thinking by now that I have decided to descend into the celebrity gossip business myself. Not so.

This occasional column in The Badger is intended to help Canadians understand a little more about the politics and culture of the interesting country across their southern border. You don’t need my help to understand the normal stuff (yes, there is some) so that means I will necessarily veer a little toward the outlandish. And believe you me, there is nothing much more outlandish around here right now than Sarah Palin.

I should disclose at this point that I have special feelings about her on account of the fact that I was born in Alaska and lived there more than 40 years. I am tired of being laughed at by friends and strangers who ask about this woman. Her constant narcissistic quest for the spotlight makes me cross.

People assume I knew her in Alaska, but I did not. When I left in 1995, she was not even mayor of Wasilla, although I believe she had already been crowned Miss Wasilla and runner-up for Miss Alaska. Also, although I edited the biggest newspaper in Alaska for a dozen years, I don’t believe I ever knew the name of any mayor of Wasilla. It just didn’t matter.

However, I was back in Alaska for a wedding on the weekend after her selection by Sen. John McCain. I was in Juneau, the capital city, at a number of dinners and parties attended by many political people, so naturally I asked them what they thought of her vice presidential nomination.

Almost without exception, everybody I asked answered with some variation on three consistent themes:

1. Do not underestimate Sarah Palin. She is telegenic, has real gifts for communicating and she can be very charming;

2. She is not remotely qualified to be the vice president (or, God forbid, president) of the United States; and

3. John McCain better watch his back. Whenever Sarah’s in the room, it’s always all about Sarah.

U.S. voters generally figured all that out on their own during the election, and Sarah was, by informed consensus, a net drag on the already moribund McCain campaign. But a sizable minority continue to adore her, seeing reflected in her crude vision their own frustrated world views.

In a parliamentary system, a person of such limited experience or knowledge would never be considered for national leader, of course. But here in America, it’s practically guaranteed.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken said about the process back in 1920:

"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."