Getting Palin wrong, coming and going

Peggy Noonan continues to tie herself in knots over Sarah Palin. During the Republican convention, Noonan wrote a column in which she argued that Palin represents “a real and present danger to the American left” which therefore needs to “kill” her. However, a few days later, when she thought her microphone was off, Noonan said that McCain had “blown it” by selecting Palin as his running mate. So much for the danger to the left.

After the vice presidential debate, Noonan praised Palin’s performance. But in her latest column, she takes the position that Palin is “a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics” that is “no good. . .for conservatism [or] for the country.”

Noonan’s initial position — that Palin represents some sort of existential threat to the left — was over-the-top, and I said so at the time. It seemed that Noonan had been caught up in the irrational exuberance that swept away many conservatives, particularly those trapped in the bubble that was the Republican convention, during the heady days of early September. Except that Noonan may not have believed what she wrote.

Noonan’s current position — that Palin epitomizes what’s wrong with conservatives – fares no better. She begins by citing Edmund Burke’s admonition that writers owe their readers their judgment, and that they betray their readers if they present what may or may not be their opinion. Ironically, this is precisely the betrayal of Noonan’s initial column on Palin.

In her latest column, Noonan argues that Palin has not been sufficiently thoughtful in her public statements during the seven weeks she’s been on the campaign trail. “She doesn’t think aloud,” Noonan complains, “she just says things.” But in the home stretch of this campaign, have Barack Obama, Joe Biden, or John McCain been any more thoughtful than Palin? Noonan doesn’t make that case, and I doubt it’s there to be made.

Instead, Noonan asserts that Palin doesn’t really understand the “tinny” lines she’s been “throwing out” to crowds. But Noonan does not provide a basis for concluding that Palin doesn’t understand what she’s saying or that her lines are appreciably more tinny than those of her counterparts in this election. If Palin were as dense as Noonan suggests, it’s doubtful that she could have held her own (or better) with Biden in a 90 minute debate, a performance that Noonan praised.

It was always clear that, as a novice in non-Alaskan politics, Palin would be playing catch-up with McCain, Biden, and even Obama. When Noonan called Palin a danger to the left, was she thinking that the governor would acquire a thorough command of the full range of issues in the campaign plus a deep understanding of conservative philosophy in seven weeks? More likely Noonan was reacting rather than thinking, and this still seems to be true.

To clinch her case Palin’s candidacy is “no good” for conservatism or the country, Noonan claims that conservatives whose thoughts lead them to criticize Palin are being “shunned” by their fellow conservatives. She goes so far as to suggest that true believers are “attempting to silence” critics.

Noonan cites the example of Christopher Buckley who “was shooed from the great magazine his father invented.” As Rich Lowry points out, though, Buckley was not “shooed away” from National Review, a publication that provides a forum for Palin critics like David Frum. If Christopher Buckley’s politics are not highly regarded by conservatives these days, it’s because he supports an ultra-liberal presidential candidate, not because he criticizes Palin.

I’ll conclude with a brief discussion of my experiences in writing about Palin. Many readers will recall that I expressed serious doubts about Palin’s present fitness for high office even before McCain announced her selection. I continue to have these doubts. Many readers have challenged me on this. Almost all have been civil, and I certainly haven’t been “shunned.” However, more than a few readers have said, in effect, that I “don’t get it” because I’m a corporate lawyer living and working inside the beltway.

For a time, I was frustrated by my inability to make people see what was fairly apparent to me about Palin. But I have never resented robust expressions of disagreement, including the suggestion that I’m an “elitist.” One should always be willing to entertain the possibility that one’s perspective may be distorted. And I have certainly not confused robust expressions of disagreement with an attempt to silence me. They are, at worst, the manifestation of reader frustration with me for not seeing what is apparent to them.

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