Richard Cohen on studying Sarah Palin

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I saw the other day that George W. Bush is raising money for his proposed policy institute at Southern Methodist University. I did some research and found out that there are something like 3,000 policy institutes, most of them hosting convocations about nothing much and issuing papers no one reads. I suggest therefore that Bush use his money to do something truly different and constructive -- establish the Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin. My check is in the mail.

This is Palin Week -- days of interviews relating to the publication of her book, "Going Rogue." She will appear virtually everywhere, making her usual good impression, and there will be more talk about how she might run for president. Someone will point out that she is even scheduled soon to go to Iowa -- and you know what that means.

On the other hand, someone else will point out that the very week Palin is promoting her book, the current president is abroad attending meetings in Asia, including a visit with our Chinese bankers. Could those who fault Barack Obama for being callow and inexperienced imagine Palin meeting with the Chinese or, for that matter, conducting a protracted policy review about Afghanistan? As for Pakistan, South Korea, North Korea, the Middle East and, of course, the perplexing Georgian-Abkhazian conflict -- I don't think she is quite up to it all, some of those nations not being close to Alaska.

And this being the case, the Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin should look into how she was chosen by John McCain as his vice presidential running mate -- and why McCain, given absolute proof of abominable judgment and the sort of sorry political opportunism he built a career decrying, has not repaired to a monastery and taken a vow of absolute silence because almost anything he has to say post-Palin has to be judged by his choice of her.

A further area of study ought to deal with the mind-set of McCain's former campaign aides who continue to criticize Palin for not turning out to be the mute puppet they had so hoped she would be. That she went rogue I have no doubt -- but this was only after they went stupid and helped pick her in the first place. They live in political ignominy for not resigning from the campaign when it counted.

The Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin might conclude that she represents the exact moment important Republicans gave up on democracy. She was clearly seen as an empty vessel who could be controlled by her intellectual betters. These include the editorial boards of the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, neither of which would hire Palin to make an editorial judgment but both of which would be thrilled to see her as president of the United States. It does not bother these people in the least that the woman is a demagogue -- remember "death panels"? -- and not, on the face of it, very responsible. If she quit as governor of Alaska in the noble pursuit of money, might she quit as, say, vice president or president for the same reason? From what I hear, one can never be too rich.

I suppose, too, that the Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin would issue oodles of papers on our celebrity age and how she, after all, is just another one. Like most celebrities, she is a vehicle for the sale of something: a book, a magazine, a TV program or a diet regime. This is essential, for we are a vast country without much industry and so we rely on the production of fame, which is what we now do best -- as cars and steel and 20 Mule Team Borax are all a distant memory.

Finally, the Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin will mull what she represents. She has a phenomenal favorability rating among Republicans -- 76 percent -- who have a quite irrational belief that she would not make such a bad president. What they mean is that she will act out their resentments -- take an ax to the people and institutions they hate. The Palin Movement is fueled by high-octane bile, and it is worth watching and studying for these reasons alone.

It may be asking too much of Bush to put his money into something useful instead of the standard presidential monument of self-aggrandizement. This, though, is his chance: Study Sarah Palin. If she's a comer, then we're all goners.

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