Published on September 9, 2008
SINGAPORE—It is in the Republican Party’s best interests to lose the November elections. Years in power have so debased the party of Lincoln it has corrupted even language itself (an incomparable instrument in Lincoln’s care, and an indivisible part of his legacy).
Consider Sarah Palin.
John McCain’s running mate is attractive and easy to like: Tina Fey with a moose gun. (Life magazine ran an uncanny cover featuring the “Saturday Night Live” comedienne and McCain, still in Straight Talk Express mode, a few years back.) Palin seems like the kind of All-American go-getter we’ve all met: naturally courteous, pleasantly assertive, earnest and self-sufficient.
She is also a liar. Or, alternatively, her acceptance speech was a concatenation of lies.
I realize that, as Orwell reminded us half a century ago, political language conceals as much or even more than it reveals, and that campaign rhetoric, almost by definition, uses the grammar of exaggeration. But the kind of lies we heard from the Republicans in St. Paul was out of the ordinary. (Incidentally, St. Paul is the charming town that memorializes F. Scott Fitzgerald, another great American writer who closely followed the intimate traffic between lies and terminal decadence.)
At their political convention, the Republicans went beyond being economical with the truth; they positively splurged on the untruths.
Perhaps even lying is not an accurate enough word. The language of the party in power has clearly undergone an Orwellian transformation, where words either don’t mean anything, or they mean the exact opposite of what they are supposed to mean. When the party in power the last eight years (six of them with control of Congress) runs on the mandate of “change,” what does being the party in power mean?
Palin’s acceptance speech (which wowed the delegates inside the hall and entranced many viewers watching on television) was the highlight—or the low point—of this sordid transformation.
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One of Palin’s best lines was the “two memoirs and no law passed” jibe (or jab) at Barack Obama. “But listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform—not even in the state senate.”
It may be that the Alaska governor was merely following party strategy in painting the Democratic candidate for president as an out-of-touch, Eastern-elitist celebrity writer (with two bestselling books to his name). But it could also be that Palin, in trashing Obama for writing books allegedly at the expense of his official responsibilities, was in fact acting out of instinct. She did, after all, ask a government librarian after she took office if she was open to banning certain books from the library.
The lie in her assertion has been dissected by both journalists and bloggers: Obama has in fact authored reform legislation in both the Illinois State Senate and in the US Senate. One such law, for instance, was co-authored by Sen. Richard Lugar, a gray eminence in the Republican party.
But Palin did not only fabricate facts; she also confused them.
Obama did not write two memoirs, but just one: his first book, “Dreams from My Father.” His second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” is what is known in the trade as a thumbsucker, a think piece. Rooted in his experience, yes, but hardly a book of reminiscences.
A US senator did write two memoirs: John McCain. “The Faith of My Fathers” centers on his experience as a prisoner of war. “Worth the Fighting For” takes up from where he left off, at the beginning of his storied political career.
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Palin also mocked Obama’s previous career as a community organizer, implying it wasn’t a real job. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”
A good line, if we don’t care about the truth. (The comedian/fake TV reporter Stephen Colbert caught the true nature of the beast that has run wild during the Bush years when he coined the fake concept of “truthiness.”)
As it happens, the best riposte to this condescending attitude to social workers and community organizers is a line I first stumbled upon in Facebook. “Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor.”
Everything about the Palin speech was designed to appeal to this sense of truthiness: hence the glib but grossly inaccurate putdown of Obama’s two memoirs, the glib but fictional account of the governor’s alleged opposition to the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere.” (She was for it before she was against it.)
That such fakery can work its superficial magic, despite Dubya’s dubious example—it is astounding.
I wouldn’t be surprised if what may have been Palin’s most effective moment, the pause-and-point to the “Hockey Mom” placards in the convention hall and then the now famous “lipstick” joke, turned out to be scripted too.
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To be sure, the Palin appointment is a true game changer; the dynamics of the 2008 elections have changed dramatically. The question is: Why did McCain change the game plan when it was working for him? The conservative base of the Republican Party has been resurrected; but so has the Democrats’ own base. After McCain named Palin as his running mate, the Republicans received something like $10 million in new campaign donations. But after Palin gave her acceptance speech, the Democrats received something like $10 million, too.