Farewell, Sarah

October 6, 2011

It would be a mistake, however, to bid her farewell without noting her accomplishment. She was maybe the first of our celebrity politicians — not, mind you, a politician who achieved celebrity but one who did it the other way around. It’s true she was governor of Alaska when John McCain selected her for his ticket, but no one knew that. She had the name recognition of a dead dog catcher.

It was that first speech of hers that made her career. She just blazed — a comely package of dancing eyes, charm and charisma. McCain beamed like an old man who had just entered a nightclub with some arm candy. She performed wonderfully. She dazzled — and she was on her way.

What did she say, exactly? Never mind, it hardly mattered. Bit by bit, she revealed herself to be something of a dope. She was shockingly unqualified for the vice presidency, not to mention the presidency. Her responses to questions — that stuff about being able to see Russia was just plain asinine — were stunningly bad. She couldn’t say what newspapers she read — and then blamed the diligent Katie Couric for having the effrontery to ask her. It was, all in all, a pathetic performance.

I can’t say none of that mattered, because it did to an extent. But the harsh fact is that as she slowly showed that she was shockingly unqualified for the presidency, she seemed to loom larger and larger in American political life. It was, in fact, that very naivete, inexperience and lack of knowledge that commended her to so many people. It was her values that counted — and she was, she insisted, a good, ordinary person.

Herman Cain has learned from Sarah Palin. He, too, is almost without relevant experience. He has been successful in business and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, but he had never held elective office. He knows virtually nothing about foreign affairs and while that may not seem critically important to some people, it remains a fact that the United States is now fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan), and is involved in the nasty business of killing people elsewhere, Yemen for instance.

But Cain knows that all you need nowadays to give a campaign some thrust is a touch of charisma and a sharp tongue. He’s got both. A candidate no longer needs endorsements from politicians or even a record in public office. The celebrity politician need only announce himself and then get a critical mass of people to like him. With that, he’s off.

It comes as no surprise to me that Cain does little conventional campaigning — 19 of 31 days this month are unscheduled, the New York Times tells us. That’s because his campaign organization is the media. He shows up at debates. He does the Sunday shows. It works. He’s high in the polls. People like him — almost as much as he liked himself. He can’t win — at least he shouldn’t win — but this will be fun for a while.

In 1984, Gary Hart won a stunning upset in the New Hampshire primary. On the plane going up from Washington, Hart told me how he was going to do it. He pointed to network news crews some rows back. “That’s my organization,” he said. And he was right. The news media came through for him — that stunning shot of him throwing an ax, dressed in a great-looking lumberjack shirt — Paul Bunyan with position papers. Hart, of course, was a serious, studious fellow and a senator to boot. He knew the rules had changed. Celebrity mattered.

Palin will fade. She does not have the diligence to build an organization. She is fated to be an after-dinner speaker, fees slowly declining. But she had made her fortune and showed others how it can be done. So long, Sarah — from headlines to footnote in about three years.

Who’s next?

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.
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