In 1968, Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee for president, held a series of early-morning meetings at the party’s national convention in Miami to discuss vice presidential possibilities. The last group consulted included most of the GOP’s congressional leaders. When Nixon mentioned Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, there was utter silence until Gerald R. Ford, minority leader of the House, broke out laughing before he suddenly realized an angry Nixon wasn’t kidding. As it turned out, he should have been.
The decision by Sen. John McCain to select Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate on the Republican ticket had some of that shock impact and at this stage, anyway, perhaps more risk. It can end only one of two ways — either as a brilliant political stroke or the biggest boneheaded move since 1964 when another fellow Arizonan, Sen. Barry Goldwater, tapped William Miller, a little known Buffalo congressman and GOP national chairman, to be the vice presidential nominee.
Veteran observers were at first incredulous at Palin’s selection, partly because of the fact she had not been close to prominence in the speculation leading up to the announcement and partly because of her near-zero name recognition outside her monstrously large but sparsely populated state. not to mention her utter inexperience beyond those boundaries. Intensifying the disbelief and dire predictions was the consideration that at 72 and with a history of health issues, McCain would be actuarially more than a usual risk not to finish his term should he win, leaving an obscure 44-year-old world affairs novice in the White House.
But closer examination of the decision bolstered by Palin’s surprisingly articulate and sharp performance during her debut on the national stage with McCain, has tempered that assessment somewhat. She has been an admirable achiever from her high school basketball days to the statehouse in Juneau with a penchant for taking on the good old boys of her own party. There is no question that she embodies both the maverick strain McCain has nurtured throughout his career and the appeal to social conservatives that he lacks. Those factors plus the cachet of being the first woman on the GOP ticket, makes it is easy to see why many nervous Republicans feel buoyed by her candidacy.
Her presence after the Republican convention also instantly changes the dynamic of the election, giving Republicans an enhanced chance at capturing some of those women disaffected and let down by Sen. Hillary Clinton’s loss and Obama’s subsequent decision not to consider her as his running mate. Palin’s sudden appearance on the scene Friday clearly bit into the amount of media coverage Obama expected to receive immediately following his highly touted acceptance speech in Denver. The Palin selection also helped hold the expected Democrat’s post-convention bounce in the polls to about seven points, an unusually small percentage historically.
Hovering over the enthusiasm, of course, is her lack of experience. But consider this. The entire election is about experience or the lack of it. Obama has very little compared to McCain, for instance. He is serving his first term in the Senate but has spent almost two years of that running for the presidency with little time in Washington. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, has served 32 years in the Senate but has no executive experience, nor for that matter has McCain.
If one wants to look back, which we seem always to do in this business, Jimmy Carter was elected president with about the same experience as Palin — two years as a governor following a career in the Navy and years spent as a peanut farmer in a little Georgia hamlet infinitely smaller than the one Palin hails from in Alaska.
Hollywood would love this story. In fact it almost seems to have been written there. Improbably, a small-town girl makes good first as mayor, then as governor and finally makes it to the presidential ticket. Palin fits the underdog role to a tee, having taken on her own party’s establishment to get where she now finds herself. One can only hope she is aware of what she will be in for the next two months as her opponents and the media invade every aspect of her life, no matter how trivial. It is a daunting prospect, even for an apparently tough person.
Once again, the real question appropriately should be whether it is a good decision to take one so young and inexperienced and put her a heartbeat away from the most important public office in the world. It is difficult to see, under the circumstances, how the McCain campaign can legitimately challenge Obama’s lack of experience.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)