By Marc Fisher
Thursday, September 11, 2008
E ight working mothers from the Virginia Run development in Centreville went together to the Palin-McCain rally yesterday because Sarah Palin is "just like us." This is something new. Nobody ever accused Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan of being just like us.
"She justifies what we do every day," said Beth Tweddle, who works in sales and carried a sign she drew herself, saying "We [heart] Pit Bull Palin." Tweddle was already a McCain supporter, she said, "but Sarah just energizes us and got us out here because she does what we do, she lives like we do."
We don't live in an age of looking up to authority anymore. We don't cotton to the idea that there are people who are our betters. In this time of "American Idol," bedroom bloggers and the belief that experience, knowledge and education don't necessarily mean a whole lot, Palin is a symbol, a statement that anyone can make it if he or she really tries.
Karla Rupp, a real estate agent, went to see Palin on behalf of her three children, especially the one who has multiple disabilities and is in a nursing home. Val Lewis couldn't stay away -- "that's how empowering it is to have Sarah up there. I have four children; she has five. And we get it done."
The crowd, which I counted at 8,000 but which police estimated at 23,000, gathered at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax City represented votes for John McCain but passion for Palin. McCain knew it; he led the audience in a chant of "Sar-ah! Sar-ah!" Still, did the man who might be the next president know that hundreds would start streaming out of the park as soon as Palin finished speaking, leaving a noticeably sparser audience to hear from the top of the ticket?
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Republicans wielded "celebrity" as an insult. No more. They have seen Barack Obama's electric effect on audiences, and they have trumped him, at least in a way. Obama may still draw larger crowds and inspire followers with a message of hope and change. But the governor of Alaska is winning people over with empathy, which the dictionary says means "understanding and entering into another's feelings," and with something even more direct: a sense that her experience is that of the average American family's.
"She's just as flawed as we are," Tweddle said. "It's not the fact that she's a woman but the way she does it all. And let me tell you: There're more American parents with unwed pregnant teenaged children than American parents with Harvard grads. She's real."
For hours, I walked through the crowd talking to people, mostly women. Again and again, I heard variations on this idea: "She's more like us than Obama, McCain or any of the others," as Rupp put it. "She knows what we go through."
Think of whomever you consider the greatest presidents, and odds are, they were about as far as you can get from being like the rest of us. They tend to have come from wealth, power, fame, the pinnacle of our education system or all of the above. FDR could speak to the pain Americans felt in the Depression, and no one especially cared that he had never personally felt such strain. Reagan could inspire Americans to believe that the nation had a higher purpose, and his celebrity and Hollywood roots only made him that much more admired.
Palin is connecting because, like a reality TV show's most sympathetic contestant, she puts front and center the inexperience, imperfection and pain that most professional politicians work so hard to hide. McCain can't quite tell the story of the pain and sacrifice he experienced as a prisoner of war? No problem. Palin will express the emotions that he can't. That's what mothers do.
"Being a mom is tough, and being a mom and working is really tough," said Carol Buro, who could spare only an hour before she had to pick up her daughter from kindergarten in Vienna. She went to the rally anyway, because she just had to see Palin. "I was going to vote for McCain, but I wasn't very excited. I felt he was a little too political -- saying things because that's what people want to hear. Now I'm just so proud of Sarah. You know, we've all been through a lot. And she's seen some tough times, and she's stood up for what she believes in."
Most people I spoke to readily conceded that Palin lacks experience with or knowledge of many important national and foreign issues. But, as Allison McGarvey, a teacher who lives in Stafford County, said, Palin is "a courageous woman, and what she doesn't know, she can learn quickly. Let's face it, no president knows all the issues. Anyway, I don't see how a candidate can pick one stand and just stick to it. The world situation changes every day. It's their moral and ethical background that's important."
In this hyperdemocratized society, the national conviction that anyone can succeed is morphing into a belief that experience and knowledge may almost be disqualifying credentials.
Like many at the rally, Victoria Robinson-Worst sees Palin's lack of experience as an asset. "I know people who have experience who are totally incompetent," said Robinson-Worst, who lives in Loudoun County, designs wedding flowers and raises two children. "And I know people who have no experience who step in and get it right. I mean, women can do amazing things."
This is where culture wars, identity politics and self-suffocating academic theories of deconstructionism have led us: Authority is suspect. Experience is corrupting. Ignorance is strength?
Next will be "war is peace." Or have we already heard that one?
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