I didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on Sarah Palin, at least not in print, until I saw her featured in Runner’s World, the holy grail for anybody who’s laced up a pair of running shoes. I don’t know how I missed that piece of her biography, but I learned that she’s been running for 35 years, since she was a child and her parents caught the running craze in the mid-’70s.
That’s when I caught it too, and suddenly I felt simpatico with Palin, an odd feeling since her political inclinations are so different from mine. She grew up doing family run runs, her parents were marathoners, and her dad ran Boston a couple times, another holy grail. “I feel so crappy if I go more than a few days without running,” she says. Now that’s my kind of woman.
Running is what they call a positive addiction. I once had a stress fracture in my foot, which I ignored as best I could lest it interfere with my run. I didn’t come to my senses until my husband asked how long it would take me to hop four miles. Palin faults the McCain staff for failing to carve out time for her to run during the campaign. She’d issue an ultimatum that she needed to run, and too often it never happened. Just think what a different campaign we might have seen if Palin had been given the time to generate those exercise-induced endorphins and maybe even order her thoughts. She might have saved herself from becoming a laughingstock with that disastrous interview with Katie Couric.
I have sympathy with Palin as a woman and a mother. She wanted her life back. I get that. But I don’t think that walking away from the governor’s office is compatible with attaining the presidency, and her excuse, that she was sparing the state of Alaska the expense of a lame-duck governorship, was laughable. The detail that jumped out at me from a front-page piece in The New York Times was how Palin’s hair was thinning at such an alarming rate due to stress that her beautician staged an intervention. The governor was clearly having trouble coping and instead of backing away and deflecting the criticism, she engaged with every attack, however petty.
Much of the criticism leveled against Palin is justified. She has the makings of a dangerous political figure, a populist in the tradition of Pat Buchanan, whipping up resentment among “real Americans,” the term she used in the campaign and which applies mostly to white, rural pockets of the country. Now that Buchanan has mellowed into the role of television pundit, we forget that he prosecuted the culture wars of the 1990s with his opposition to affirmative action, immigration, gay rights, and abortion, and that he won the New Hampshire primary in 1996, vowing, “The peasants are coming with pitchforks.”
Buchanan is an unabashed admirer of Palin’s, and no wonder. She’s as good as he is at fanning the resentment of Americans who feel left out and left behind in a world that’s changing too fast for them. Buchanan was a speechwriter for President Nixon, where he learned at the feet of the master. Richard Nixon’s hate-filled rants are preserved for the ages on audiotape. In the recently released HBO documentary on Ted Kennedy, Nixon is heard ordering aides, after the shooting of Alabama segregationist Gov. George Wallace, to plant the rumor that the assailant was a Kennedy sympathizer. When Ted asks for Secret Service protection, Nixon grudgingly grants the request, figuring he can put one or two loyalists on the detail to uncover useful information about a political foe. Then after the election, yank them, Nixon barks; if the SOB gets shot, so be it. It’s chilling to hear even now, almost four decades later.
Nixon was easy to hate in a pure, unadulterated way. The emotions Palin arouses in the electorate are far more complicated. Women were drawn to her initially, but she let them down. Her positions were too far to the right and her knowledge too provincial. She wasn’t ready to be president. Those attitudes have hardened with time. In the latest CBS poll, only 33 percent of Republicans say she’d make an effective president; that number was 71 percent last fall. Still, I can’t think of another vice presidential candidate on a failed ticket who remained newsworthy a year later. Nobody cared what Dan Quayle had to say after the Bush-Quayle ticket lost in ’92, and he’s the closest analog to Palin, chosen for the youth and good looks he could bring to a charisma-challenged elder statesman.
Palin may not care much for governing, but she’s competitive. Running with the Secret Service, she tried hard not to hyperventilate or show too much pain. Once, coming down a hill, she fell, tearing up her hands. She refused to get her wound stitched and refers with evident pride to the scar on her right palm as her war wound. It’s tempting to dismiss Palin as a quitter, but anybody who has put in the miles she has in Alaska’s arctic weather knows something about endurance. How she applies it is another matter.