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To Know Her Is To Respect Her

The great Palin divide.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By FRED BARNES
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Lorne Michaels is the longtime executive producer of Saturday Night Live. Sarah Palin appeared on SNL in mid-October, after which Michaels noted, "Her politics aren't my politics." But that wasn't all he said. "I think Palin will continue to be underestimated," Michaels told EW.com. "I watched the way she connected with people, and you can see that she's a very powerful, very disciplined, incredibly gracious woman. This was her first time out and she's had a huge impact. People connect to her."

Randy Ruedrich, the Republican chairman in Alaska, is someone you might suspect would be a friend and ally of Palin. He isn't. She helped drive him off the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, criticized him publicly, and later tried to get him ousted as party chairman. Ruedrich is part of the "body count" of male politicians Palin left behind as she rose to become governor of Alaska. Yet Ruedrich says Palin is smart, very capable, and a political star.

Ruedrich isn't alone among Alaska politicians who take a cold-blooded view of Palin. Another Republican who has followed her career closely believes Palin has a ruthless streak. Yet this person, too, regards Palin as a rare talent with the skill and self-confidence to be a national political leader. And Palin's Alaska acquaintances were certain, from the moment she became John McCain's vice presidential running mate, that her acceptance speech would be a smashing success and she'd have little trouble in her debate with Joe Biden. Turned out they were right.

But that didn't matter. The positive assessment of Palin by those who know her or have worked with her has come close to being drowned out by her critics, from the right and the left. Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist, wrote last week that McCain was seduced by Palin's attractiveness into picking her as his running mate. The basis for Parker's conclusion was a comment by her husband about Palin, seconded by a friend ("I'm sexually attracted to her"), and a magazine article. Palin doesn't recall ever having met Parker, much less been interviewed by her.

Peggy Noonan, the former White House speechwriter for President Reagan who now writes for the Wall Street Journal, has run hot and cold on Palin, mostly cold. What appears to be her final judgment is that Palin's nomination for vice president is "no good, not for conservatism and not for the country. And, yes, it's a mark against John McCain." Palin and Noonan have never conversed either.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has rendered an even harsher verdict, calling Palin "a fatal cancer to the Republican party." So far as Palin knows, she's never met Brooks or been interviewed by him.

And then there's the view of Matthew Dowd, a top strategist for President Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. He's been quoted as saying that McCain actually knows now that Palin is unqualified to be vice president. By choosing her, McCain "put the country at risk."

The difference of opinion here, between those who know Palin and those who don't, is unusual. The criticism of Palin is personal. Normally in politics, campaign operatives are called on to make excuses for a dull and uninspiring candidate. Invariably, they explain that in private, especially face-to-face with a small group of voters, the candidate is dazzlingly likable and enormously persuasive.

With Palin, it's the opposite. No one questions her ability to excite a crowd. Simply by stepping on stage at rallies, Palin rouses audiences, and her speeches are frequently interrupted by chants of "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah."

It's the private Palin, the person--who she is, what she knows, her lack of experience--that has provoked both the strongest criticism and most legitimate doubts about her readiness to be first in the line of succession if the president dies or is incapacitated.

A media person I know dismisses her as "a journalism graduate of the University of Idaho." This is pure snobbery. I asked him to name his favorite president of the past 60 or 70 years, and he chose Harry Truman. Truman never went to college but became a pretty good president nonetheless when he succeeded FDR after only a few weeks as vice president.

The issue of experience is more serious. Palin, a governor for less than two years, has no record in national affairs, with the exception of one issue--energy. And with gasoline prices falling, that issue has become less important than expected in the campaign.

On foreign and national security affairs, Palin has a knowledge gap. Indeed, if she knew more, she might have skewered Biden for the whoppers he told--about the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan--in their debate on October 2. The press, while critical of Palin, didn't notice the inaccuracies either, or at least failed to draw attention to them.

Lack of experience is a recurring issue not only for vice presidential candidates, but for presidential nominees as well. Barack Obama has been attacked for his limited experience in foreign policy. And though Biden, his running mate, has spent 36 years in the Senate, he seems to have learned very little from this experience.

Palin is in a familiar situation. Governors who run for national office automatically face questions about their inexperience in foreign affairs. Ronald Reagan did. Bill Clinton did. So did George W. Bush. Had Obama picked Virginia governor Tim Kaine as his veep, Kaine would have been hit with those questions. If McCain had chosen Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (as he came close to doing), Pawlenty would have faced the same doubts. So the qualms about Palin's experience are merely par for the course.

Palin's record is another critical test of her personal skill as a leader. What has she done? A lot more than Kaine or Pawlenty or most governors. She ousted an incumbent governor of her own party, successfully fought corruption in the party, and tore up a deal with oil companies, forcing them to accept a less lucrative agreement on a new natural gas pipeline.

In judging Palin, it comes down to who is more credible. Is it those who've worked with her, or know her, or have at least met and talked with her? Or those who haven't? The answer is a no-brainer. Okay, I may be biased on the subject of Palin, having been impressed after spending nearly two hours with her on one occasion and an hour on another.

My advice is ignore the critics who know far less about Palin than she does about foreign policy. A good example is Ken Adelman, who headed the arms control agency in the Reagan administration. Adelman recently endorsed Obama and said he "would not have hired [Palin] for even a mid-level post in the arms control agency." Well, I know both Palin and Adelman. And Ken, I'm sorry to tell you, but I think there are an awful lot of jobs in Washington that Palin would get before you.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.