The Magazine

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.