ONE SPRING MORNING several years ago, I discovered myself nestled deep in the corner booth of a local cafe, sipping coffee and patiently coaxing the ragged creak and groan of middle age northward toward rudimentary consciousness. The hour was early. Dew had settled on the sidewalk; passers-by pursued their own private agendas, collars upturned, splicing their own visible breath in a headlong rush through the waking daylight. An occasional head turned in my direction, doubtless pining for the respite of sweet fragrance and fresh fruit. I was expecting someone; a once and future colleague with whom I had business to discuss. As for the rest, my mind wandered; I imagined the shallow gray cubicle in their immediate future, or the scarlet tryst in their immediate past, or the wince and worry of a pharmaceutical side trip, and wished for them that the mundane compulsions of ordinary life might somehow depart in favor of a pure mountain stream or the laughter of children.
My colleague was late, and I had taken to inspecting the morning paper in the vain hope of finding something worth reading. Our local newsprint is the stuff of legends, but I do not mean that in a good way.
Well into my first cup, I became aware of an increasing volume of choppy banter in the booth over my left shoulder. I’d noticed its occupants upon entering; two well-dressed men - one, a politician of considerable renown and local importance, and another of less immediate consequence, and unknown to me. The former’s reputation preceded him like a bad smell; a wide man of fungible integrity who was accordingly loud and arrogant, oddly given to insulting his constituents on local radio, and renowned for his ability to exploit even the most innocuous issue for partisan political gain. A real gem. I had never met the man personally, and this was my first earshot encounter.
I am not one to eavesdrop with malice aforethought, but the insistence of self-important chit-chat can be overwhelming in a small cafe’, and these men apparently felt entitled to dominate the kitchen white noise and morning quiet. Worse, the content of their slithering banter was entirely offensive, replete with personal innuendo, black tactical thrust and parry, and verbiage worthy of an old salt sailor. Resplendent in Hickey Freeman, coiffed to the nines, and replete with the glossy surface patina of power and privilege, these men were soiling our otherwise peaceful repast with language and laughter of the ugliest sort. It confirmed in spades what reputation had hinted at, and succeeded in reinforcing my growing certainty that it is the least deserving among us whom so often ascend to positions of authority. Alas, this is the quintessential human contradiction.
I was reminded of this small portmanteau of unpleasantness on July 3, when Alaska’s governor chose to step down for reasons that she could not, or would not articulate. Methinks could not. In one of the most bizarre public statements I have ever witnessed, Governor Sarah Palin stumbled through a rambling, sing-song recitation about dead fish, the full-court press, Alaska’s mission to “contribute to America” and, oh yes, she’s quitting. It’s the right thing to do, what with all these scurrilous ethics charges, plus It would be apathetic to just hunker down and "go with the flow" - a sunny colloquialism chosen to marginalize the concept of actually doing the work for which she was inexplicably elected. The whole business was so poorly conceived and transparently rapacious that this incident alone will surely elevate her to the first rank of the chattering class, there to opine with the likes of William Kristol and Bill O’Reilly, as she is easily their equal in predictive accuracy and fastidious attention to detail. That, and those legs.
Everyone knows a Sarah Palin, I suppose. The archetype is unmistakable, ubiquitous, and notable primarily for a single salient characteristic - the willingness to do absolutely anything to serve themselves, and themselves alone. Business types with Type-A afflictions euphemistically call this enterprise as they take credit where none is warranted and climb the corporate ladder of the backs of their kinder, gentler colleagues. Mothers scold their children with cookie-jar chestnuts about selfishness, mistaking a simple childhood zeal for sugar with a preternatural God complex borne of religious immersion in institutional guilt. Politicos prefer the term ambitious, rather than, say, serial backstabbing glad-handing glinty-toothed troglodyte. Admittedly, it’s shorter.
In varying degrees, one sees all of this in Mrs. Palin, but it requires a serious investment of time to broach the everyman bromides and unearth the Harlequin Queen Bee. About ten seconds, give or take.
I’ve known a few Sarah Palins in my day; physically attractive, ruthless, not particularly intelligent - but aggressively so - genetically incapable of listening, kiss-up-kick-down in the finest John Bolton tradition, replete with manipulative instincts that isolate and target weakness, and steeped in bifurcated situational ethics that pave the way for the lies, platitudes, and condescensions that are the ugly currency of naked ambition. One in particular springs to mind - a woman who has crossed my path professionally now twice, and who is given to leaving interpersonal destruction in her wake. If memory serves, she is currently in the vicinity of the helm of a smallish local firm, groupie fashion, slowly but surely running it into the ground. From time to time I hear tell of the odd resignation, or dismissal, or dust-up, and her name invariably surfaces in pejorative fashion. One notes a trend. On at least one occasion I remember acknowledging a feeling of great sympathy for her children that they should be subject to such a deeply misguided role model. This is a sentiment that has surfaced again in the wake of Mrs. Palin’s 15 minutes of infamy.
The Palin family odyssey, however, is hardly tangential, as she has chosen to stage them front and center as proof positive of her down-home bona fides. That’s fine with me; from where I sit, her family appears to be perfectly normal. Relationship difficulties, out-of-wedlock childbirth, a special needs child, a registered member of the Alaska Independence Party - this is all quite humdrum, and few beyond the Rorschach Test morons employed by Rupert Murdoch would care, had Mrs. Palin not attempted to obfuscate these “imperfections” with cellophane falsehoods and that silly bit about asking her daughters to vote on the Vice Presidential nod. About the only thing really worth noting is that Mrs. Palin’s choice to give birth to Trig, her Down’s Syndrome-afflicted son - a choice about which any and every parent might be justifiably proud, and with which she admittedly struggled - is precisely the choice that she would deny every other woman on the face of the Earth, in call cases, without exception, and regardless of extenuating circumstance. For the record, one notes that a full appreciation of such staggering hypocrisy can only be grasped with a three-digit I.Q.
The intelligence problem, of course, is THE problem. To merely state that Mrs. Palin is not the sharpest tool in the shed would be to forgo the opportunity for a quirky butcher shop reference. Somehow, a meat cleaver seems a more apt foil than a garden-variety shed tool, what with so much blood in her public wake. Large, heavy-handed, extremely dangerous in the wrong hands, wielded in ramshackle rooms where sunlight does not venture, and lacking the notion that subtlety might even exist as a concept, the meat cleaver metaphor improves the more I think about it. This is not to say that Mrs. Palin is entirely stupid - her political instincts are well-honed, and she seems highly attuned to the increasingly irrelevant and rapidly diminishing faction of the electorate for whom real-world facts and figures are subordinate to George Bush-style governance from the gut. Or, to continue the reference, governance from the gutted. But the idea that she might have one day ascended to the Presidency in the wake of an aging John McCain has properly filled many a sane-thinking registered voter, including an increasingly large faction of her own political entourage, with abject horror.
Mrs. Palin’s obvious ignorance of so much of the world outside of Alaska is not necessarily offensive in and of itself; like each of us, she is constrained to focus her time and talents on matters that are pertinent to her life and her interests. What is offensive is her willful ignorance of that larger world, and the glaring absence of any such interest that does not demonstrate immediate personal benefit. George Bush’s “lack of curiosity” was adopted as a euphemism by the mainstream media as the kindest possible way of addressing his astonishing lack of intelligence. The version we see in Sarah Palin is less about native intellect and more about myopia - an aggressive, egocentric refusal to enlarge one’s mindset and knowledge base in a manner, and with a persistence, befitting hard-earned and worthy leadership. Hers is neither.
As Mrs. Palin departs her governorship, the myopia and naivete’ that has defined so much of her presence on the national stage is beginning to emerge from her backwater tutelage as the most salient characteristic of Alaska’s internal political processes as well. Alaskans of all political stripes are speaking out in increasing numbers, casting aspersions on the efficacy of her governance, and ripe with anger and betrayal at the cavalier disregard for the due diligence and methodical decision making that might have otherwise characterized Alaska’s nebulous arrival on the national political stage.
Ah, Alaska. Of the many places I have never visited, there are none that I love more than Alaska. I am moved by the vast mountain ranges I have never seen, the 33,000 mile coastline that beckons north to the frigid sea, and far in the Arctic quadrant of the state, ANWR - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - home to the nation’s largest caribou herd, and ten billion recoverable barrels of crude oil and natural gas. I’ll note for the record that ‘recoverable’ is a industry term of art, but is otherwise meaningless; it’s not like we had them, lost them in a poker game, and now we want them back.
Oh yes, I love Alaska. I’ve seen pictures. Some relatives visited. I really enjoyed Northern Exposure.
For Mrs. Palin, this level of scrutiny is apparently all that’s necessary to pass judgement on matters that she otherwise knows nothing about. So the general public is saddled with unfortunate rhetorical flourishes like "Drill baby, drill!” Never mind that ANWR industrialization will have no discernible affect on the price of crude oil, and would likely initiate a cascade of industrial sprawl across the north slope covering as much as 1000 square miles. Never mind that that entire estimated ANWR reserve would provide enough oil to supply the United States for perhaps a single year. Never mind all that. Everyone knows that the environment is, and must be, subordinate to human sprawl, in all cases, without exception, next question. I love your pumps, by the way.
Mrs. Palin’s foreign policy credentials are similarly thin, predicated as they are on coastal proximity and excellent vision. The ability to see all the way across the Bering Sea apparently confers international diplomatic savvy of the sort that President Obama neglected while he was palin’ around with terrorists. That two such ignoble and antediluvian thoughts could emanate from a sentient being is preposterous enough. To then cackle and cat-call such threadbare rejoinders at high volume before the carnivorous red-shirted lemmings of her primary constituency is - it must be said - tantamount to proof of inter-species evolution. It would seem that we’ve finally found the missing link.
Now it seems that we must all endure the next phase of Mrs. Palin’s career, if cashing in on the cult of personality can be called a career. She’s begun her 2012 presidential campaign in earnest, with a Washington Post op-ed attacking the Waxman/Markey proposal for a cap and trade system on carbon emissions - the same policy she supported as a Vice Presidential candidate. The piece is so thin and poorly crafted that it’s astonishing that the Post would publish it at all; a vastly superior piece from a garden-variety citizen wouldn’t be touched with a 10 foot barge pole. Full of bumper sticker bromides and replete with factual errors, the piece lacks a single reference to climate change, makes no mention of carbon emissions, and studiously avoids conservative third-rail concepts like global warming. It reads like a recitation of energy lobby talking points, or maybe the transcript of a James Inhoffe campfire singalong. Consistent with most of Mrs. Palin’s public platitudes, reading it and not reading it are roughly equivalent.
This is the Sarah Palin we all know; dull but pretty, thin but thin-skinned; fresh-faced but foul-mouthed, attractive and interesting in the fashion of a Venus Flytrap; and newly adrift as the biggest political fish in the shrinking conservative pond -- an angry, boiling body of water, slowing evaporating under the creeping malaise of untethered global warming and the persistent illumination of white-hot summer sunlight.