If Barack Obama has been the most remarkable phenomenon of the recent political scene, Sarah Palin must be second. The emotional responses to each — especially by the media and the intelligentsia — go beyond anything that can be explained by the usual differences of opinion on issues of the day.
That liberals would be thrilled by another liberal is not surprising. But there are conservative Republicans who voted for Barack Obama, and other conservatives who may not have voted for him, but who are quick to see in various pragmatic moves of his since taking office an indication that he is not an extremist.
Anyone familiar with history knows that Hitler and Stalin were pragmatic. After years of denouncing each other, they signed the Nazi-Soviet pact under which they became allies for a couple of years before going to war against one another.
Pragmatism tells you nothing about extremism. The conservative intellectuals who seize upon President Obama’s pragmatism to give him the benefit of the doubt are obviously bending over backward for some reason.
With Governor Palin, it is just the opposite. The members of the conservative intelligentsia who react against her have remarkably little to say that will stand up to scrutiny. People who actually dealt with her before she became a national figure have expressed how much they were impressed by her intelligence.
Governor Palin’s “inexperience” is a talking point that might have some plausibility if it were not for the fact that Barack Obama has far less experience in actually making policies than Sarah Palin has. Joe Biden has had decades of experience in being both consistently wrong and consistently a source of asinine statements.
Governor Palin’s candidacy for the vice presidency galvanized grassroots Republicans in a way that John McCain never did. But there was something about her that turned even some conservative intellectuals against her and provoked visceral anger and hatred from liberal intellectuals.
Perhaps the best way to try to understand these reactions is to recall what Eleanor Roosevelt said when she first saw Whittaker Chambers, who had accused Alger Hiss of being a spy for the Soviet Union. Upon seeing the slouching, overweight, and disheveled Chambers, she said, “He’s not one of us.”
On the other hand, the trim, erect, and impeccably dressed Hiss, with his Ivy League and New Deal pedigree, clearly was “one of us.” As it turned out, he was also a liar and a spy for the Soviet Union. Not only did a jury decide that at the time, the opening of the secret files of the Soviet Union in its last days added more evidence of his guilt.
The Hiss-Chambers confrontation of more than half a century ago produced the same kind of visceral polarization that Gov. Sarah Palin provokes today.
Before the first trial of Alger Hiss began, reporters who gathered at the courthouse informally sounded each other out as to which they believed, before any evidence had been presented. Most believed that Hiss was telling the truth and that it was Chambers who was lying.
More important, those reporters who believed that Chambers was telling the truth were immediately ostracized. None of this could have been based on the evidence for either side, for that evidence had not yet been presented in court.
For decades after Hiss was convicted and sent to federal prison, much of the media and the intelligentsia defended him. To this day, there is an Alger Hiss chair at Bard College.
Why did it matter so much to so many people which of two previously little-known men was telling the truth? Because what was on trial was not one man but a whole vision of the world and a way of life.
Gov. Sarah Palin is both a challenge and an affront to that vision and that way of life — an overdue challenge, much as Chambers’s challenge was overdue.
Whether Governor Palin runs for national office again is something that only time will tell. But the Republicans need some candidate who is neither one of the country club Republicans nor — worse yet — the sort of person who appeals to the intelligentsia.