On a recent Tuesday morning, reporting from a Rotary Club function in Wellington, Nevada, NPR’s Ina Jaffe played a comment from Julie Costo, a McCain supporter who remarked that she was excited when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. The source of Costo’s excitement? The “enthusiasm” Palin brought to the ticket, and (according to Costo) the fact that Palin is “such a class act.”
A “class act”? Somehow, someone in America is still able to think of Palin as a “class act,” even after her disastrous interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, and even after her “debate” with Joe Biden, which wasn’t so much a debate as it was a staged performance in which Palin recited what were obviously nothing more than memorized talking points, bits of ordered information which she delivered to the camera with oddly- timed winks.
Perhaps it takes “class” to—no more than three questions into a televised debate—explain to your opponent and the audience, “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”
It is no surprise that those running for office frequently find ways to dance around sensitive issues in order to avoid saying something that could be politically inexpedient. What is surprising, though, is that someone could–without being challenged by her opponent or the moderator–avoid the dance altogether and instead openly explain that the rules do not apply to her, and that she would therefore be following her own agenda, thank you very much. Such a disclaimer is even more disturbing when uttered by someone who could find herself in the second highest office in the United States, or—even scarier—in the highest office, should something happen to John McCain.
So what about her exemplifies “class”? Is it the lipstick? The high heels? The propensity for wearing skirts that hang a bit above the knee? It must have something to do with how she presents herself physically to the world, because the word “class” could never be used to label what she contributes to the 2008 presidential race.
When McCain first announced Palin as his running mate, most news analysts (and even many “Joe Six-packs”) regarded the move as a clear ploy to win over disaffected women who had supported Hillary Clinton throughout the Democratic primary season. Palin herself sought to ride on Clinton’s suit jacket coattails, remarking at her first campaign rally, (in a wonderfully passive construction that took any ownership of achievement away from Clinton): “It was rightly noted in Denver this week [“noted,” that is, by Hillary Clinton] that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all!”
What Clinton meant, of course, when she made this remark, was that the eighteen million voters who had supported her had helped to change the way women in office are perceived by voters. Though she did not win the nomination, Clinton undoubtedly helped to make the path towards the presidency for a woman a bit easier to travel, and a bit less impossible to imagine. For whatever flaws she has as a person or a politician, Clinton was able to forge this path by having the intelligence to understand policy issues, and the ability to express her understanding of these issues in a way that others could readily comprehend. Though many women who supported her were obviously thrilled to have the chance to support a female candidate with a real chance of making it to the White House, very few were supporting her simply because she is a woman. Rather, she is a competent woman, an intelligent woman, and after eight years in which our country has had a dearth of competence and intelligence in its highest office, many Clinton supporters thrilled at the thought that those qualities could once again reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So far, Palin has exhibited neither intellect nor competence. Even as she introduced herself to the American people, her remarks seemed to indicate that she believed the eighteen million people who voted for Clinton would rush to support the McCain ticket simply because it now included a woman. Never mind that, in the time since declaring, “the women of America aren’t finished yet,” Palin’s chief “contributions” to the world have amounted to demonstrating a remarkable lack of knowledge in a host of important areas and, most recently, launching ad hominem attacks against Barack Obama, both of which are acts that only degrade what it means to be a powerful woman in the twenty-first century, and neither of which could be considered “ classy.”
One wonders, then, if Palin is being held to a different standard by her supporters because she plays into stereotypes about women rather than rises above them. If Clinton is, in her own words, part of the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” Palin is the snotty, bitchy “mean girl,” who, in absence of something truly relevant to say, questions Obama’s love for his country and derides his experience as a community organizer (criticism that shows not only a complete lack of understanding of the demanding role of community organizers, but also a complete disregard for the fact that Obama has held political office at both the state and federal levels). She spews this rhetoric, though, in her expensive high heels and leg-revealing hemlines, winking at the audience as she does so. Hers is an identity so contrived that it barely merits the word “identity,” and it has only succeeded in marring the conception of what it means to be a powerful woman: her behavior and her language say, “I don’t need to be well-versed in policy or law; I can be one of the ‘big boys’ by going on the attack, and then I’ll reassure the audience that they shouldn’t worry about this pit-bull. At heart, I’m just a hockey-mom with a cute little wink and a great set of legs.”
An act this surely is, but “class” it is not.