In her convention speech last night Sarah Palin demonstrated grace under pressure. She told both her personal and political stories to great effect and then delivered a withering attack on Barack Obama’s pretenses and on the mainstream media with a winning smile. Her likability is a native gift and a rare commodity. Insofar as we can tell from last night, she will play Mattie Ross to John McCain’s Rooster Cogburn.
The mainstream media are in the course of a frenzied assault on Palin that is calculated to drive her off the ticket. All things considered, her speech last night harked back in some respects to Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. As Garry Wills recalls in Nixon Agonistes, just before Nixon was to give the speech live on television before a huge national audience, Tom Dewey had telephoned Nixon on behalf of Eisenhower and essentially ordered him to resign as the vice presidential candidate at the conclusion. Dewey: “Can I say you have accepted?” Nixon: “You will have to watch the show to see — and tell them [Eisenhower’s advisers] I know something about politics too!” One measure of the speech’s success is that Eisenhower was compelled to accept Nixon’s insubordination.
Before he turns to the inside story of the speech, Wills sizes it up this way:
In one half hour Nixon converted himself from a liability, breathing his last, to one of the few people who could add to Eisenhower’s preternatural appeal — who could gild the lilly. For the first time, people saw a living political drama on their TV sets — a man fighting for his whole career and future — and they judged him under that strain. It was an even greater achievement than it seemed. He had only a short time to prepare for it. The show, forced on him [by Eisenhower’s advisers], was meant as a form of political euthanasia. He came into the studio still reeling from distractions and new demoralizing blows….[A]t the time he went onto the TV screen in 1952, he was hunted and alone.
While the circumstances aren’t exactly comparable — Governor Palin had already struck a deep chord with the party faithful — I think a star was born with last night’s performance.
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