McCain vs. Palin

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Forget Joe Biden. I'd like to see John McCain debate Sarah Palin.

McCain's scorn for Barack Obama was on unrestrained display in Friday night's debate. How dare this impudent whippersnapper imagine he can be president, you could almost see McCain thinking. I'm the one who's racked up the frequent-flier miles to Waziristan! Henry Kissinger and I were BFFs when Obama was glued to "The Brady Bunch"! Listening to McCain debate was like a stroll down foreign policy memory lane: Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko. George Shultz, "our great secretary of state." Perestroika. SDI.

Those were the days, my friend. We thought the Cold War would never end.

"Back in 1983, when I was a brand-new United States congressman. . .," McCain reminisced. And, "I supported Nunn-Lugar back in the early 1990s." By the time McCain described how the Pakistan-Afghanistan border "has not been governed since the days of Alexander the Great," you were half-expecting that he was going to tell you about how he led the congressional delegation that met with Alexander.

All this looking back doesn't strike me as a politically smart tactic -- or is that strategy? McCain risked coming off as the crotchety uncle who insists on telling you the same war stories -- over and over, no matter how off-point they are. No voter looking into the financial abyss believes the most pressing budgetary problem is $3 million to study bear DNA.

And for McCain to open the debate by noting that Ted Kennedy was in the hospital -- a gracious touch, certainly, but reminding the audience about an ailing senior senator is not the optimal move for a 72-year-old cancer survivor seeking the presidency.

Which brings me to Palin, and my continuing -- no, make that deepening -- mystification over McCain's choice. I can understand how he views Obama as untested and unprepared.

I can't square that dismissive attitude with McCain's selection of Palin.

McCain's fundamental argument in pursuit of the presidency is that he has the background to do the job. He made this point again and again Friday night. "I've been involved, as I mentioned to you before, in virtually every major national security challenge we've faced in the last 20-some years. There are some advantages to experience, and knowledge, and judgment." Or, "The important thing is I visited Afghanistan and I traveled to Waziristan and I traveled to these places and I know what our security requirements are."

And so therefore I picked a running mate who didn't have a passport two years ago? Asked about that by Katie Couric, Palin explained that "I'm not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduated college and their parents get them a passport and a backpack and say, 'Go off and travel the world.' "

Instead, Palin said, "the way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world."

This would be more reassuring if Palin had demonstrated more evidence of having read extensively about history or world affairs. Asked in an interview for PBS's Charlie Rose show last year about her favorite authors, Palin cited C.S. Lewis -- "very, very deep" -- and Dr. George Sheehan, a now-deceased writer for Runner's World magazine whose columns Palin still keeps on hand.

"Very inspiring and very motivating," she said. "He was an athlete and I think so much of what you learn in athletics about competition and healthy living that he was really able to encapsulate, has stayed with me all these years."

Also, she got a Garfield desk calendar for Christmas 1987 that made a big impression.

McCain is a voracious reader of history. The day before the New Hampshire primary, I sat on his campaign bus listening to him hold forth about William Manchester on Douglas MacArthur.

And in his most recent book, "Hard Call," McCain explains why knowledge of history matters: "Great statesmen who have been praised for their ability to see around the corner of history knew their history before they looked beyond it, and they understood the forces that drove it in one direction or another." If there is evidence that Palin has that understanding, it is yet to emerge. Peering around the corner of history with Palin as vice president is a terrifying prospect.

Read more from Ruth Marcus at's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.

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