Monday, August 23, 2010
Anyway, a thin new volume arrived over the transom this week, an offering from Jacob Weisberg called Palinisms: The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin. There are a few nuggets here, but it would seem from this little paperback that Sarah Palin is not the dimwit liberals make her out to be. Palinisms made me miss George W. Bush -- and Ronald Reagan, too. It also implicitly raises the question of where the comparable volume is for Joe Biden, the gaffe-prone pol who actually holds the job Sarah Palin sought in 2008.
Weisberg's critics have long complained that he's a liberal with an obvious partisan agenda, and while I can't speak to that, it's apparent than in modern political writing a point of view can be a shrewd marketing technique. My father, Lou Cannon, pioneered the literary conceit of the "Reaganism of the Week," ending each Reagan & Co. column with one of them, but those were an eclectic compilation, catering neither solely to Reagan lovers nor Reagan haters.
Some "Reaganisms" made The Gipper sound foolish, as when he mused about his "suspicion" that the Mount St. Helens volcano released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere than 10 years' worth of automobile driving. Others Reaganisms were clever. "I'm not worried about the deficit -- it's big enough to take care of itself." The best Reaganisms rendered his listeners speechless, which is how the leader of the free world left Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 when Reagan sought to establish common ground by telling the Soviet premier that if Earth was attacked by aliens, the Russians and American would fight the extraterrestrial invaders together. And some of the most memorable Reaganisms were statesmanlike -- as when Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and declared: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
The most endearing Reaganisms were self-deprecating: "It's true hard work never killed anybody," Reagan liked to quip, "but I figure why take the chance?" When a wire service reporter Reagan knew asked him to autograph a photo from Bedtime for Bonzo, the 1951 screwball comedy starring Ronald Reagan, the president signed it, "I'm the one with the watch."
Unfortunately, it's a different era now; we're supposed to laugh mirthlessly at those we voted against, and to use verbal misfires as proof of their idiocy -- whether or not they are laughing along with us at their own fallibility.
While giving the commencement speech at his alma mater, Yale, President George W. Bush said: "And to you 'C' students, -- you too can be president of the United States." Another time, while campaigning for reelection at a town hall in Ohio in 2004, one of Dubya's questioners identified himself as an operator of air compressor stations – a man who sells air. Bush retorted quickly: "You and I are in the same business. Is it hot air, by any chance?"
Such cleverness could be quickly negated, by George W. Bush's own hand -- or rather his tongue. The same day as the Ohio rally -- at a bill-signing ceremony, no less – the president uttered one of his most famous Bushisms: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
Everyone has their favorite Bushism. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" he said while discussing education in South Carolina on Jan. 11, 2000. "I know the human being and the fish can co-exist peacefully," was his contribution to environmental thought. His economic theory? "We ought to make the pie higher."
The Texan's saving grace -- at least to some -- was that he was in on the joke, something that Jacob Weisberg himself explained. "People often assume that because I've spent the past nine years collecting Bushisms, I must despise George W. Bush," Weisberg wrote at the end of Bush's tenure in the White House. "To the contrary, Bushisms fill me with affection for the man -- and not just because of the income stream they've generated..."
Less than two years into a new administration, we're in a political environment that is even more polarized and poisonous. Into this milieu comes Palinisms. Two things can be said about the woman nicknamed in high school "Sarah Barracuda" and who calls her political allies "mama grizzlies." The first is that barracudas and grizzlies don't laugh, they bite. In other words, Sarah Palin doesn't easily laugh at herself -- not in public, anyway. The second point is that she's not all that funny, which helps explain why Palinisms is so thin.
The book is tiny -- 5-by-7 inches -- and fits in a back pocket. It's 95 pages, but the preface goes to page 13. And though the pages are small, the type is big -- and double-spaced with a picture on about half the pages. You can read the whole thing in five minutes. Worse, you've heard much of this stuff before, although Tina Fey said it better: "I can see Russia from my house!" is hilarious. But what Palin actually said in her infamous interviews with Katie Couric was: "They're our next door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." Not that funny.
Scanning this booklet, something else occurs to a discerning reader: Sarah Palin may be more careful than people think. She has given numerous interviews, talks, and campaign speeches since John McCain plucked her out of obscurity two years ago, and yet of the 116 Palinisms in Palinisms, eight are from her (ghost-written) autobiography Rogue. Another seven are from a single talk she made while speaking about her faith at Wassilla Assembly of God church; six are from those Katie Couric interviews; five from a speech she made in Ontario, Canada last April to raise money for Charity of Hope, which helps needy children; four came from her resignation as governor; three from an interview with Charlie Gibson.
The Palin material from the Gibson interview certainly isn't elegant, but it's simply not in Bush's league for being off-kilter or entertaining. "You are a cynic," she told Gibson (page 50), "because show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect -- or no effect -- on climate change." Maybe I'm cynical, too, but that clunky prose sounds to me like the mind-numbing obfuscation that is a politician's stock-in-trade.
None of the Palinisms in this booklet are lifted from her 2008 debate with Joe Biden. And there's the rub: In that debate, Biden said numerous things, which, had Palin uttered them, would have generated pressure for John McCain to drop her from the ticket the following day. Palin wasn't perfect. Twice she referred to the top U.S. military officer in Afghanistan as "General McClellan." (His name is David McKiernan), she claimed that McCain's $5,000 tax credit for health coverage was some how "budget-neutral," and she combined the last names of the Democratic ticket when she called opponent "Senator O'Biden," reminiscent of Biden's gaffe of introducing Obama to a crowd as "Barack America."
But Biden's performance that October night in 2008 wasn't characterized by slips of the tongue so much as wildly inaccurate claims about everything from the basics of the Afghanistan war to Constitutional provisions of the office he was seeking.
Joe Biden claimed that McCain voted against a nuclear test ban treaty "that every Republican has supported" (McCain actually voted with 50 other Republicans to kill the treaty), credited Pakistan with having intercontinental nuclear-armed ballistic missiles (it doesn't), and asserted that he had opposed Bush's support for holding elections on the West Bank (Biden actually gave a spirited defense of this policy). He also maintained -- while prefacing his point with the statement "facts matter" -- that the United States spends "more money in three weeks on combat in Iraq than we spend on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan." Biden was so taken with this statement that he repeated this ludicrous claim, which was off by 2,000 percent.
Biden tried to establish his common-man bona fides by inviting voters to walk down Union Street in Wilmington and talk to regular folks at "Katie's Restaurant," which would have been hard to do because the diner (actually located on Scott Street) had been closed for 20 years. More substantively, Biden excoriated Dick Cheney for his "bizarre notion" about Article I of the Constitution (Cheney was correct) in a confused riff that reminded one commentator of John Belushi's famous rant in Animal House: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"
Biden has continued in this vein as vice president. No less an aficionado of the official gaffe than Jacob Weisberg oversaw their collection for Slate. Weisberg explained to me that they didn't get a big response. Perhaps this is because Slate's readership trends liberal. Or, as Weisberg says, the problem might be that Biden's goofiness is so situational it doesn't translate well to print -- you have to be there to really appreciate the outlandishness -- which was often the case with John Kerry's verbal blunders.
Maybe the moral of the story is that employment is not the only thing in short-supply -- these aren't great days for political humor, either. Of course, there's always Twitter, and this may be the saving grace for collectors of Palinisms. A post-script to Palinisms pays homage to this truism with a "top 10 tweets" postscript. These are pretty good, and many of which have already been topped since the book went to press. My favorite: "Research is your friend, News Media," Palin tweeted on May 15. "Try it sometime."