So Sarah Palin is taking a field trip. The former Alaskan governor has a coach bus painted with images of purple mountain majesties and the U.S. constitution, which she plans to use to make stops in historic Northeast sites familiar to grade-school civics classes. Along the way, she plans to remind Americans that they are “one nation under God,” to appreciate the country’s “diverse cultures,” and to “discover the ties that bind Americans.”
The “One Nation” tour may be cast as a way to “energize Americans,” but it sounds suspiciously like a rebuild-my-image tour in advance of a presidential campaign to me. Whether it is or not, Palin isn’t saying. She isn’t even saying when she’ll stop where on her bus tour, which begins Sunday, other than that it will start at the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington, D.C., and include stops in New Hampshire, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and at Civil War battlefields.
You’ve got to hand it to Palin. Whatever you think of her politics, she is absolutely brilliant when it comes to one thing: Keeping people guessing. Much of her aura is built around a single question—will she run for president or not?—the answer to which she surely won’t provide until she absolutely must. As long as that question remains unanswered, her mystique (and as a result, her superstardom and her potential to monetize it) will continue to grow.
But is the ability to create suspense a leadership quality? In a sense, yes. It certainly has helped Palin to attract a huge network of followers, one she can activate with a simple word, or in her case, tweet. The very essence of leadership is the ability to attract followers, and while some might do that purely by their charisma or their unique vision for the future, creating an enigma can also do the same. The keep-them-guessing routine doesn’t hurt when it comes to throwing her competitors off, either. (Just when Tim Pawlenty thought things were looking up…)
Her brilliance in this area could also help her sideline the other ways in which I’d say her leadership is lacking. She quit a job to which the people of Alaska elected her. She is prone to saying things that might curry favor as a straight-talker now, but have no place in the Oval Office. And if the account in a former aide’s recent tell-all book is accurate, she has been vindictive and erratic, qualities I don’t think many people want to see in the leader of the free world. (Palin’s camp says it “belongs on the fiction shelves” and question his appropriation of source material in the book.)
But her mastery of suspense will, of course, lose its impact at some point. Sooner rather than later, Palin will have to answer the question of whether she’s running or not, and at least some of that aura and mystique will fall away. At that point, the conversation will shift from “Will she run?” to “What kind of leader would she be?” Her many ardent fans are already on the bus. But how much the answer to the latter question will help her attract more new followers remains to be seen.
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