Until two cruise ships steamed up to Alaska two summers ago, the record for the silliest statement by a journalist had been held by Lincoln Steffens, in his time a famous American radical. Sent in 1919 to see how Russia was doing under the communists, Steffens supposedly reported, "I have seen the future, and it works." In 2007, several conservative journalists got off their cruise ships and met Sarah Palin. They saw the present, and she was a babe.
The cruises were sponsored by the National Review and The Weekly Standard, journals of significant influence in conservative circles. The ships disgorged some top conservative editors and writers, who on two occasions were invited to the governor's mansion. Almost to a man, they were thunderstruck.
What followed, once everyone returned to the lower 48, was a gusher of mush — praise, love notes, sweet nothings, and, altogether, the sort of mooning one does not usually hear from the likes of William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Rich Lowry, Dick Morris, and my Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson. In short order, important writers set themselves the task, in print and on television, of promoting Palin and, in the process, making perfect asses of themselves. They succeeded at both.
The account of that summer of love comes from yet a third magazine, The New Yorker. In it, Jane Mayer detailed the efforts of the highly ambitious Palin to become well known in the Washington political-journalistic milieu she now pretends, in proper demagogic fashion, to detest. After an apparently bravura saying of grace, she wowed her guests with some excellent halibut cheeks and the Category 4 force of her personality. Some of them sank into a delirium known only to high-schoolers and praised her as "my heartthrob" (Kristol), "a mix between Annie Oakley and Joan of Arc" (Gerson) and — so far not evident — "smart" (Barnes).
Especially in The Weekly Standard, Palin was acclaimed as a tribune of the people. As for her critics, they were dismissed as "liberal media" types who were not, like conservative editors and TV commentators, one with the people. Kristol hit this theme hard, having somehow absorbed Wal-Mart sensitivities while living most of his life in either New York or Washington, where, as I can personally attest, real Americans are encountered only when summoned to carry out home repairs. You can learn a lot this way.
Contrast the praise for Palin with the back of the hand given to the lamentable Harriet Miers. Nominated to the Supreme Court by George W. Bush, she encountered fierce resistance from, of all people, conservatives. They questioned her ideological fervor and wondered about her legal acumen. "There is a gaping disproportion between the stakes associated with this vacancy and the stature of the person nominated to fill it," wrote a certain Kristol.
But why such objectivity regarding Miers and not Palin, for whom the phrase "gaping disproportion" would seem to have been coined? The answer is obvious: It is not "the stature of the person nominated" that matters, it is the person's ideology. Miers not only had questionable credentials but questionable ideological purity as well — what the National Review called "the substance and the muddle of her views." Palin is a down-the-line rightie, so her inexperience, lack of interest in foreign affairs, numbing provincialism, and gifts for fabrication (can we go over that "bridge to nowhere" routine again?) do not trouble her ideological handlers. Let her get into office. They will govern.
It is the height of chutzpah, you betcha, for a coterie of ideologues to accuse Palin's critics of political snobbery. It is also somewhat sad for a movement once built on the power of ideas — I am speaking now of neoconservatism — to simply swoon for a pretty face and pheromone-powered charisma. But it is, I confess, just plain fun to see all these expense-account six-packers be so wrong. For some odd reason, most Americans are not finding, as Barnes wrote, that Palin "exudes a kind of middle-class magnetism." Instead, they find her out of her depth and exuding an unfathomable, not to mention unearned, self-confidence. If it weren't for the Boys on the Boats, she'd be her biggest fan.
Lincoln Steffens was so blinded by ideology that he mistook an immense criminal enterprise for a benevolent government. The Boys on the Boats were similarly blinded. They mistook personal magnetism for presidential qualities while Palin undoubtedly saw in them just what she wanted: a way out of Alaska.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washinton
Post Writers Group.