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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.