Saturday, November 15, 2008

Polar Opposites

November 15, 2008

This political season has brought us a pair of females who ask to be taken seriously. They rose like cream toward the tops of their respective tickets, and, although they are polar opposites, they may have changed the landscape of presidential politics forever.

Hillary Clinton is serious, intelligent, demanding, competitive, perhaps more than a little strident. As the wife of a favorite president, she garnered support for her own run as a U.S. senator and took the post as a stepping stone toward her dreams of higher office for herself. I said no to her all along, but after her fierce and relentless primary campaign for her party's nomination, I came away with some admiration for her along with increased conviction that she has as many political liabilities as she has strengths, the main one being an inability to work with people or see them clearly. Her campaign was a shambles almost from the first, with her operatives dropping along the wayside like flies as she became more determined to topple Barack Obama, himself a phenomenon in many ways not unlike her husband.

It was a painful campaign to watch, yet Obama held steady and gave her as good as he got, albeit with more restraint and grace. Pundits on the tube hounded him to turn ballistic, make the horse race more exciting (to them) and give the audience more fire. Instead, he worked directly with the American people and with his own organization in building a constituency based on respect for him and desire to have a brave and wise person as president of the embattled and weary nation.

Then came John McCain's choice as Sarah Palin, governor, to be his vice presidential running mate. We all made her acquaintance one night when she appeared as brightly as a shooting star on the horizon, making a sarcastic, bitter speech with a plastic smile on her face and in her voice. Here was a new political creature, pretty and with no baggage, the polar opposite to Hillary Clinton. She bragged about being a soccer mom, and told us that was like being a pit bull. She denigrated the Democratic candidate as being inexperienced compared to her, although the more we learned about her the more we saw what a lie that was.

By now Hillary was on the sidelines, and we had a couple of months to examine the Palin resumé and find it wanting. Day after day my email contained heaps of communications from women all across the country, all with more information about the ineptitude of Ms. Palin and her colorful dealings and family in Alaska. There was a certain amount of fear in these notes, fear that this interloper might actually win. She was too much like the women we had known in our youth, those clever incompetents who liked nothing so much as proving the advantage of looks over intellect.

Clinton's whole life has been a testament to her brain power. She famously met the coming young star of Harvard Law School, Bill Clinton, in the library, having been the smartest girl in her class everywhere she had ever matriculated. He has often called her one of the smartest people he has ever known, and few have disputed that. Her personal style, however, has needed an overhaul from time to time, and she has endured it for the sake of her ambition. She did not share her husband's enormous skill with people, although she was not without wit and a certain charm as she cultivated an impressive career in the wake of his.

Sarah Palin went from beauty contestant to sports news wannabe and on to the office of mayor of a minor town in a state quite remote from Washington, D.C. Defensive about appearing ignorant, she took neutral questions to be an attempt to insult Alaska, all the while looking like a million bucks (or at least $150,000) and allowing her party to play that up with a wardrobe to match. She was a lot of style with very little between the ears, while over in the Democratic Party there was still Senator Clinton, an example of the contrary.

The country has rejected both these women for the posts they were seeking, marginalizing them at least for the nonce, and I think that's a good thing. Clinton will surely find a solid place in President Obama's coterie (as long as it's a place high enough for her comfort), and Palin is not likely to go away in the near future either.

Neither of these contenders has the potential to be a great leader. But in a weird way both have blazed a trail for women of the future. And their participation in the process has prepared us all for the bumpy ride toward a real hole in the glass ceiling.


Daniel Spiro said...

These are upbeat days in politics. But you caught me while I was working on a philosophy project. So I'll try to shoot as straight as possible.

Within a few days, there's a good chance that Hillary will be named Secretary of State. For someone that has had such difficulties working with people (indeed, she appears more suited for a monarchy than a democracy), it would be a curious choice, to say the least. But as you indicated, she has her strengths, and they include a whole lot more gravitas than the other publicized candidates for the job. (John Kerry? I don't think so.) Personally, I'd prefer it if she stayed in Congress, but I'm not the President-Elect.

As for Palin, she scares the crap out of me. In four to eight years, she'll have studied up on her facts, and should be able to reach the level of substance that Bush attained in 2000, when he battled Gore to a virtual tie. Moreover, she is physically very attractive by conventional standards, and while she is likely to "lose her looks" to some degree, what do you bet she's still viewed as a knockout as politicians go. In addition, she is a superb actress -- again, relative to other politicians -- and we all remember what a modicum of acting talent did for Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Most importantly, she's willing to serve as the consummate demagogue. If history tells us anything, it's that millions of people in democracies are willing to be taken in by demagogues who are nice looking and charismatic.

In the past, those politicians who have authoritarian personalities (like Hillary) or who shamelessly are willing to pander to the most divisive, fear-based instincts of the public (like Palin) have tended to be men. In the future, they might be women. That gives me cold comfort.

But we agree on one fundamental point -- Hillary and Palin will also make it easier for women politicians who are emotionally and intellectually suited for power. That's the silver lining amidst the clouds.

Mary Lois said...

I disagree about John Kerry, who got a raw deal in his presidential bid, and made a very good showing in spite of it. I'd like to see him as Secretary of State. I don't think he'll be chosen, but he's got plenty of qualifications.

Benedict S. said...

"Pundits on the tube hounded him to turn ballistic, make the horse race more exciting (to them) and give the audience more fire."

The truth embedded (in the clear) in this statement leads me to fear, as Dan seems to, that Ms. Palin's star is ascendant. The media needs people like her to sell their product. The more "attractive" they can make her to the plumbers and Bible thumpers the better for their bottom line.

Perhaps these sentiments reveal my conspiratorial under-belly, but I think you know (from your personal experience in the media) the power of Spinning Yarns. (I capitalize this to honor a cousin's horse who won wire-to-wire at Hollywood Park this past Friday.) It doesn't matter that the taffy being pulled is poisonous; "Remember the Maine." When the news becomes a commodity, the free flow of which is Constitutionally guaranteed, when we see that commodity as a self-advertising product, then we have found a solid ground for our fears.

There's also this. Millions upon millions, hungry for self-esteem, will hardily cheer Ms. Palin (while booing Ms. Clinton) for no reason other than that she has been able to sell herself, with the media's assistance, as "one of us." Their numbers may never reach the majority (unless Mr. Obama fails in his mission), but they will nevertheless always stand (until they don't) in the way of the unifying spirit. The media will love that too, for nothing sells quite so well as blood in the streets.

I share your opinion -- and not Dan's -- of Mr. Kerry. He would make an excellent spokeman for the nation's foreign policy.