The Trouble With Sarah

The latest contretemps between Sarah Palin and the Left arose out of an encounter at Boston’s Old North Church in which Palin explicated Paul Revere’s ride. USA Today’s account was relatively charitable:

Sarah Palin apparently flubbed details of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride when she visited Boston yesterday.
The former Alaska governor, who may or may not be running for the GOP presidential nomination, thought Revere was warning the British army during the Revolutionary War.

Left-wing outlets were delirious with glee: Sarah Palin! What an idiot! She thought Paul Revere rode to warn the British!
Let’s just pause on that for a moment. Do these people seriously believe that Palin thought Revere was a British agent? That he risked his life to warn English troops–who were mostly in Boston, so why would he need to ride anywhere to warn them?–that John Hancock and Sam Adams were…asleep in their beds? That his capture by British soldiers, not to mention his subsequent enshrinement as a hero of the revolution, was a mistake, since he was only trying to be helpful to the English? Really? Really?
This reminds me of the time when a liberal told a joke to the effect that Dan Quayle said he wished he had brushed up on his Latin before visiting Latin America, and liberal news sources repeated the joke as fact. Some people are so far gone in partisan hate that they will believe just about anything, without reflecting on whether it makes any sense.
The real problem that was exposed at Old North Church wasn’t Palin’s lack of knowledge about American history, it was incoherence. In the video clip we don’t hear the question, but here is her answer:

This transcript of Palin’s remarks may seem cruel, but it is as accurate as we are going to get:

He who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free.

Liberals have focused on the phrase “warned the British,” and Professor Bill Jacobson, among others, has manfully labored to show that Palin was right: after he was captured by the British, Revere did, by his own account, tell the English soldiers “that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.” Neatly done, Professor, but I think it misses the point. The issue with Palin’s narrative is not that it was wrong, but that it was incomprehensible.
Apart from warning the British, Revere also didn’t “ring[] those bells,” or “send those warning shots and bells” “as he’s riding his horse through town.” There is simply no proper way to parse Palin’s syntax. Still, I think it is clear what she was getting at. I don’t think she was referring to an obscure point of colonial history when she talked about Revere warning the British. I think that if you look at her answer as a whole, she was talking not about Revere’s actions in a vacuum, but about the whole Lexington/Concord event–the giving of an alarm by Revere and Dawes, the sounding of the alarm through church bells ringing across the countryside, the mustering of Minutemen who made a stand at Concord Bridge, and–as Palin said–sent a message to the British that they would not stand still and be disarmed, but would fight for what they believed to be their rights.
The problem here is not inaccuracy, but incoherence. Sarah Palin is a good writer and a good (sometimes excellent, as at the 2008 convention) deliverer of scripted speeches. But when she talks off the cuff, she is often inarticulate and sometimes, as at Old North Church, worse. If you see her on Fox News, as I do occasionally, you observe the same thing. There are way too many WTF? moments.
The power of articulation isn’t everything in a candidate. I would much rather have, as president, an inarticulate conservative than a glib liberal. (Having said that, don’t tell me about Dwight Eisenhower unless you can up with a clip that is remotely as confused as Palin’s Boston riff.) And, to be fair, many other politicians–President Obama, for example–aren’t very articulate either, when they don’t have a script. But Obama isn’t that bad.
So let’s be real: the ability to articulate ideas is a central skill for a politician, especially a presidential candidate. Sarah Palin has many qualities that I admire, but her supporters need to acknowledge that her frequent inability to communicate effectively, when speaking impromptu, is a serious shortcoming that legitimately weighs on her standing as a potential president.