The Magazine

Class Will Tell

Why is Bill Ayers a respectable member of the upper middle class and Sarah Palin contemptible?

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Pour yourself a Johnnie Walker Black and remember. The presidential campaign was going to be about sex--the sex of the inevitable winning candidate. Then it was going to be about race. We dreamed we would atone for slavery and the Berlin Airlift, impress Europe and charm the Arab world. But the undecided voters who will determine the winner are no longer interested in race or sex. They are looking at social class. Which ticket best expresses the values and tastes of the upper-middle-class--and captivates the rest of us who follow the lead of the upper-middles?

The class argument is why the Bill Ayers strategy won't do. In the sex and race eras, it would have worked nicely. Obama's longtime working collaboration with the radical educational theorist and retired terrorist would dramatize his carefully but hastily discarded political radicalism. But no longer. The anti-Ayers publicists are quite right about Ayers's malignity and Obama's connivance. But when they try to explain what Ayers has done in the past and still wants to do--turn schools into nurseries of revolution, make leftist views a condition for becoming a teacher, promote dictatorship, and glorify violence--they injure not help their cause. Class will always trump politics. Being the first in one's family to adopt liberal political sentiments or move to New York City means a step into the middle class, for most Americans, and an increase in social status. More extreme political radicalism lifts one a step or two higher.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn became Sixties royalty not because of the status of the Ayers family in Chicago, but because of their relish for violence. They attempted to kill, and celebrated the killings of others (like Charles Manson's victims and the murder of any number of cops), to set an example for the less privileged. "We've known that our job is to lead white kids to armed revolution. .  .  . Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don't do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way," said the future Mrs. Ayers in 1970. On the other hand, there were the masses of students who merely marched and flashed the peace sign. Socially, they were nowhere. That was the shock of the Kent State massacre--the veteran martyrs of Harvard's University Hall and Columbia's Low Library wondered that such a terrible and authentic event could have taken place at a far-away state school to people of whom we knew nothing.

Now mainstream Chicago regards Ayers as rehabilitated--but why? He hasn't, like Chuck Colson, repented, or paid his debt to society by serving a prison term. He doesn't even enjoy the prestige of a Clinton presidential pardon. Susan Rosenberg, a fellow Weatherman for whom Mrs. Ayers did go to jail rather than implicate in the execution murders of several cops, enjoys that distinction. What makes the Ayerses respectable is purely a matter of upper-middle-class solidarity. You can see the ranks close around them in the texture of Richard Stern's elegant prose. Stern, a novelist and a long-serving University of Chicago English professor, reassures us:

I've been to three or four small dinner parties with Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, once hailed as the Weather-men's Dolores Ibárruri ("La Pasionaria"), a fiery, beautiful muse. .  .  . Dohrn is still attractive, while Ayers maintains an adolescent fizzle in his sexagenarian bones.

Carefully, Stern engages with the glamorous couple on equal terms, before judging them:

At dinner, thirty-eight years later, Ayers and Dohrn did not seem to hold [my criticism of the 1970 University of Chicago student uprising] against me, and I didn't hold their fiery and criminally violent behavior against them. As in Chekhov's wonderful story "Old Age," time had planed down the sharp edges and brought one-time antagonists into each others' arms.

As the Ayerses' social equal, Stern can estimate them fairly.

As far as I know, Ayers and Dohrn are loyal to the selves which led both of them to jail (though not for long), but they were busy doing other things, useful things, Ayers as educator, Dohrn as a legal counselor. They'd raised the child of a Weatherman who'd been jailed, they were taking care of Bernardine's ill mother, they were doing many things educated community activists were doing.

What the Ayerses now teach, think, and do hardly matters as long as they observe good form, the form of "educated community activists." Stern wants us to hear a mellow Chekhovian tone in their lives (and his prose). Perhaps, but in his moral reasoning I hear Oscar Wilde's Cecily Cardew, in The Importance of Being Earnest, observing that the Ayerses "have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance."

This is the first election since 1996 and only the second since 1984 that has not offered the voters at least one specimen, and sometimes a dégustation of several, upper-class Americans. The Bushes, Kerry, and Gore were all true American aristocrats, with a long lineage, distinguished ancestors, prep-school educations and tastes. Richard Stern couldn't muster an intimacy with their unattainable world--Skull & Bones, the Elizabeth Islands, wind-surfing, ancestral summer compounds. Mere achievement gets us nowhere. But this year, what makes class so important is how very close so many of us are to the upper-middle-class characters on offer on the Democrat ticket. Biden's background is comfy: high school quarterback not racing skipper, summers on Rehoboth Beach not Gibson Island. And even behind Obama's fiery mentors, there is an upper-middle-class background, attainable, imitable, and soothing. If one were to pick out one real achievement in Senator Obama's life, it is to show us that attaining his status has been pretty easy for him. And it can thus be pretty easy for us, if we just pull the right lever.

On the other hand, what can McCain and Palin offer except their two personal histories of struggle? John McCain speaks about service and sacrifice, and how he wore our nation's uniform, as if we want to hear about such things. But in my demographic slice of country, we are a little conflicted about such things as struggle, service, uniforms, and sacrifice. America's "officer class" does not generally include career military officers. In his book Class, Paul Fussell hypothesized that upper-middle-class men prefer natural-shoulder jackets because men's shoulders are a secondary sexual characteristic. "Epaulets emphasize the shoulders. They are thus associated with the lower classes, whose shoulders are required for physical work. The military makes much of epaulets, betraying instantly its prole associations."

The influential section of our upper-middle class, which lives in media centers, does, of course, have an understanding of the ethic of service, and a special familiarity with men in uniforms decorated with epaulets. Paula Throckmorton-Zakaria finds the spirit of service right at home in Manhattan:

We may not have a ''servant'' class in the strict Victorian sense, but a "service" class we have indeed, and it is serving us. How do we square our egalitarian self-conceit with a liveried doorman? Not easily. For non-New Yorkers, doormen are the guys who carry the bags, organize the packages and tell you who stopped by to see your 15-year-old while you were out. They also open the door.

Receiving all those services in exchange for a partially deductible maintenance fee and a Christmas tip, we don't much miss the small matter of McCain's authentic service to his country. I, my children, and perhaps the Sulzberger and Couric children spent years passing through doors opened by uniformed, epauletted men on the way to private schools that were proud to teach an ethic of service. The experience didn't equip us to recognize the real thing.

And what about Sarah Palin? Here, the upper-middle-class deficit gets worse. Throckmorton-Zakaria's husband, Fareed Zakaria, uses a rare one-word sentence to make his entire argument against her: "Palin Is Ready? Please." She notoriously strikes the wrong class note on a thousand media keyboards with what Andrew Sullivan calls gallantly "Sarah Palin's cocktail waitress act." But the problem is not that the governor can't conform to upper-middle-class norms. It's that she won't.

If only Palin were really as trashy as Sullivan thinks she is. Sadly she is quite the opposite--one of nature's noblewomen. She rose by refusing to accept the limitations of her proper station in life; she is despised for continuing to do so. If Palin wants to pal around with the Throck-morton-Zakarias, she is wasting her time memorizing classic 19th-century Supreme Court decisions (Katie Couric isn't going to give her a mulligan). Instead, she should learn from watching herself as she ought to be.

Some will remember Loretta Young's Oscar-winning portrayal of Katie, The Farmer's Daughter, in the tearjerker of 1947. Katie is a respectable girl with a grating accent who serves in the household of a great Minnesota political dynasty, headed by matriarch Ethel Barrymore. The son and heir, Joseph Cotten, is about to step into his father's Senate seat in an uncontested election, until Katie speaks up at a public meeting. She causes a sensation. The desperate opposition party runs Katie against Cotten, an act of lèse-majesté which enrages Miss Barrymore--then wins her respect. So far the story traces Palin's trajectory. Palin emerged from the tutelage of local figures and rose to be their equal--but then went on to defeat her GOP antagonists at the polls, save her party in Alaska, and become a competent governor.

Katie, though, realizes that her place is not in the Senate, but as the bride of the new senator, guiding him from behind the scenes. Katie knew when to resume her proper place--but Sarah refuses to do so. No wonder Paula Throckmorton-Zakaria's husband is sore at her: "Is it too much to ask that she come to realize that she wants, in that wonderful phrase in American politics, 'to spend more time with her family?' "

Even better, Governor Palin, think of yourself as the Admirable Crichton. In J.M. Barrie's hit play of 1902, an aristocratic household--master, butler, tweenie, and all--is shipwrecked on a desert island. In the state of nature, all discover that the butler, Crichton, is the true leader. Just as the counterjumping Mrs. Palin had to take charge when the country club Republicans running Alaska became corrupt and lazy, Crichton accepts his new role calmly and saves the family. His reward is the promise of Lady Mary's love.

In the play, but not in Alaska, there is a neatly ironic conclusion. The little group is rescued. Back in London, nature's aristocrat yields silently to social order. The former lovers, back to buttling and being bride of the year, confront one another in a little scene that for generations induced tears in its audiences:

LADY MARY: Do you despise me, Crichton? (The man who could never tell a lie makes no answer.) You are the best man among us.

CRICHTON: On an island, my lady, perhaps; but in England, no.

LADY MARY: Then there's something wrong with England.

CRICHTON: My lady, not even from you can I listen to a word against England.

Palin, to our cost, refuses to play Crichton this way. She wants to be the best man, not just in Alaska, but even in America itself. This makes her audience not tearful, but profoundly uncomfortable from social anxiety. Noam Scheiber has a particularly grave case.

Scheiber's attempt to understand Sarah Palin, detailed in the New Republic, took him all the way to Wasilla, as strange to him as Ethiopia to Evelyn Waugh. Scheiber spoke to various people from Palin's past, all of whom have two things in common: Every one of them is smarter than Palin and none of them has been heard of since their encounter with her. Scheiber's pet specimen among what he calls "the more urbane members of the community" is a Dartmouth graduate who reads Civil War histories, self-published a book, and not only does but "savors" the New York Times crossword puzzle. This sort of résumé wouldn't get your niece an unpaid internship on L Street--but for a Rhodes Scholar lost in Alaska, the Dartmouth degree, the Civil War buffery, the Times crossword puzzle all take on huge significance. Unable to comprehend how Palin could have outpaced the Wasilla gentry, poor Scheiber clings for dear life to these sad fragments of class dignity.

While Palin threatens class solidarity, Obama is emollient. The more urbane members of the Hyde Park community are cleverer than their Wasilla counterparts and believe that they have captured Obama for their class--just as Richard Stern persuades himself that the still-radical couple he dines with are merely Unitarians in a hurry. But the man who may be president is cleverer still.

Obama and his surprising choice for vice president have spent most of their career working on their own images, smoothing out the rough edges, trying out devices, rhetorical and cosmetic, to make the nicer sort of people feel comfortable with them. Obama wrote his own life, and then wrote it again; Biden practiced for years in front of a mirror to overcome his childhood stutter. Carefully composed, Obama holds the upper-middle class in his steady hands, and has no need of Stern's help to assure our anxious electorate that he will not shock their class sensibilities.

The Republicans, alas, are stuck with this election's true and unrepentant revolutionaries. McCain and Palin have each refused, by sheer cussedness, to fulfill the social expectations of others. This may make them poison to undecideds who suffer, more than most, from class anxiety. But do not despise the undecideds. Even conservatives can contract Scheiber Syndrome. Think of David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, David Frum, Peggy Noonan, and George Will. The symptoms? Curiously amplified, obsessively repeated, sometimes elaborately stage-whispered doubts about the Republican ticket.

There is no cure, but there is an etiology. All share a dreadful secret--their writing is driven by an anxiety to be tastemakers to the gentry, not merely thinkers and entertainers. There is nothing more anxious-making than striving to create taste for the classes, not masses, or even to keep up with it. (The struggle to do so is etched in the lines of Tina Brown's face.) But what the classes think is a matter to which the GOP standard-bearers are sadly but nobly indifferent.

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, is publishing director of the American.