Every time I hear Sarah Palin talking — more and more to jubilant overflow crowds — I hear the voice of America speaking. The other day, I was calling a bank in the small town in Iowa in which my wife Karen grew up (the same hometown as the Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug). After a few sentences, I told the clerk speaking on the telephone that she sounded just like Sarah Palin, and not only because she once answered me “you betcha.” My nephew, who goes to school in the same town, had just handed in a school paper in which he wrote: “Sarah Palin talks just like us.”
A few weeks before, my aunt in western Pennsylvania (John Murtha’s district, recently cruelly slandered by him), celebrated her 80-something birthday with a large surprise party attended by her whole side of the family. A great deal of kindness and mutual concern passed from person to person. I heard many voices that sound a good bit like Sarah Palin’s. The same guts. The same common sense. The same instincts. The same sense of America.
I wonder if most of the people who are today dissing Sarah Palin, at least among a few conservatives I greatly admire, are more accustomed to debating highly educated liberals. Could it be that they understand the diction of journalism and the academy better than they understand the speech of most of America? They understand the maturity, sophistication, and rationalization of their own world better than the simpler but truer instincts of most of America.
I can’t help thinking, when I hear them, that it is not Sarah Palin they feel far superior to, and embarrassed by. It is the life and common sense of most of the humbler American people — and not only in rural areas, but also in the myriad cities and towns that have populations of 100,000 or less. More Americans live in such environments than in the large “sophisticated” cities. And it is they who seem disproportionately to give their lives for this country, more so than the rest of America. Not coincidentally, the schools in these smaller towns seem to hold to considerably higher standards than those in the big cities. And more people in them seem to be in touch with the frontier traditions of America (even western Pennsylvania was once the frontier) than in more “sophisticated” environments.
I remember how shocked H. L. Mencken was when he arrived in tiny Dayton, Tennessee, for the Scopes trial, only to find copies of his own publication The American Mercury on sale in the local drug store, and to meet several people in town who subscribed. He actually thought the yokels and the yahoos read nothing. That was the tone Sarah Palin picked up in Katie Couric, who demanded that Sarah produce a reading list. Sarah was too insulted to care to reply.
Just because Alaska is far from New York, she later said, doesn’t mean Alaskans don’t read. The same magazines and papers come there as everywhere else in America. And it is not obvious that the more you read them, let me add, the better in touch with reality you become.
We have had, of course, several great presidents who did not win much approval from the better classes of their day. Many “superior” persons in America today speak of Sarah Palin with the same sophisticated disdain with which their forebears once spoke of the rough, raw Abraham Lincoln, who strayed into their midst as presidential candidate from the hickdom of central Illinois. These forebears also mocked his accent, his lack of learnin’, and his way of speaking. They failed to discern his inner moral compass, and they underestimated his resolve and his toughness.
I might as well put one more thing on the record, too: There are, no doubt, other Republican leaders who have more foreign-policy experience than Sarah Palin. But she has more knowledge about international energy matters — and probably about the advanced weaponry and technologies of surveillance that the U.S. military maintains in Alaska — than Barack Obama. His experience was as a “community organizer,” funder and guide for Chicago’s radical Left, and useful operative in the Chicago political machine. I certainly trust her common sense of things, frontier instincts, and moral courage more than I trust candidate Obama’s.
Sarah Palin does not diss America in the way that candidate Obama seems to do quite naturally — except that recently he has been restrained by electoral expedience. Sarah’s goal is not to make America into another Western Europe. Her goal is to reform America on the model of the original American vision, which where she comes from is still so close you can almost touch it.
Without question, Sarah Palin has the best natural sense of humor and happy disposition of any of the four top candidates. She is, by far, the happiest warrior among today’s front four. Not a bad endowment for a vice president.
I fear Barack as president more than I fear Sarah. Both will have learned advisers at their side. And, one hopes, some voices of common sense.
By contrast with Sarah, one theme ties together everything Barack and Michelle Obama have long been about: They often diss America implicitly and explicitly. They used to hang out with people who diss America. They want to change the America they are not proud of into a different sort of nation: a European social democracy. They admire European health care, tax policy, and micro-regulation. They share Europe’s cultivated dissing of business, enterprise, initiative, and hard work.
Their own dissing of America is what drew them to Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who to this day think that ugly America needs their kind of revolution. As recently as 2006, Ayers dissed his own country openly on a visit to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, urged joint efforts in fighting for revolution through the schools, and then dissed America in particular as in need of revolutionary upheaval.
It is not so much the terrorism of Ayers and Dohrn that inspires contempt. It is their unrelenting dissing of America. The same urge to diss fires the “goddamning” of America by pastor Jeremiah Wright — which, over 20 years, did not make Barack Obama uncomfortable. At least, not until he was criticized for it once he went out to seek the presidency of the United States.
European citizens reciprocate the dissing of America they hear from candidate Obama (not least, in his apologizing for America in Berlin). Europeans tell pollsters they prefer a President Obama over the American hero, John McCain, by over 70 percent to some 25 percent. Obama they regard as one of themselves.
I prefer American democratic capitalism to Euro-social democracy. For one thing, the U.S. has much lower unemployment, and a lot more economic dynamism among small businesses.
These are the choices we Americans will be facing, next Tuesday. Barack Obama is calling us toward Europe; Sarah Palin is calling us back, to what’s best in our own American tradition.
– Michael Novak’s latest book is No One Sees God. His website is www.michaelnovak.net.