washingtonpost.com
The Palin genie

Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; A19

The mind of the demagogue is a foreign country. It has a strange culture, enemies that only the natives can see, a passion about the ridiculous and a blowtorch kind of sincerity that incinerates logical thinking. On Sunday, the custodian of one such blowtorch was on Fox News. I am speaking, of course, of Sarah Palin.

She was charming, amusing and believable. When Chris Wallace asked her about any presidential ambitions, she did not coyly say that she had not given the matter any thought. Instead, she said that if her party needed her, if her country needed her, if the need for her was truly great, then she would sacrifice her freedom of movement, the privacy she enjoys with her family - never mind their tabloid lifestyle and addiction to publicity - and give it all up and run for president. All over the nation, a fair number of Republicans reached for the antacid. Oy!

A Palin presidential candidacy, Politico tells us, would give the GOP establishment a near-fatal case of hives. The leadership generally considers her to be both unelectable and uneducable. (She seems hardly better informed than when she was a lone sentry, binoculars trained on nearby - and forewarned - Russia.) A recent Post-ABC News poll showed that only 39 percent of voters viewed her favorably and a still lower figure, 27 percent, considered her qualified to be president. (Who are these people?) But as Republican leaders know, Palin's numbers are much higher among their own rank and file. With conservative Republicans, 55 percent think she's qualified to be president - and among Tea Party types, she wins by acclamation. The nomination, please.

John McCain's little joke is turning out not to be so funny. In choosing Palin as his running mate, he set a standard for political recklessness that I hope will never be bettered. Still, it would be reckless in itself to transfer McCain's cynicism to Palin. This is the constant mistake made with all demagogues. We think that they cannot be serious or sincere - that if we could be a fly on the wall we would hear them mocking their own followers as imbecilic. History teaches otherwise.

Palin's Sunday performance was instructive. This was the show in which she said that the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, KTVA, is staffed by "corrupt bastards." This demure protest from the Evita of the North was a response to a tape in which the station's staffers were overheard saying they would look for a child molester at a campaign stop for senatorial candidate Joe Miller, whom Palin endorsed. "You know that of all the people that will show up tonight, at least one of them will be a registered sex offender," one of the staffers said. Case closed.

But hold on. How do you find a sex offender in a crowd? Do you go from person to person asking, "S'cuse me, but are you a sex offender?" Because if that is not done, then I can't see how you can ever find one. Do sex offenders wear special uniforms? No. It's obvious then that these staffers were joking - playing into the Palin stereotype of them as liberal hacks who would do anything to destroy her. This is what she believes and she recited the story with such obvious conviction that when she ended with the "corrupt bastards" tag, it seemed downright appropriate.

The fierce stupidity of this woman is hard to comprehend. It is the well from which she draws her political sustenance. It explains why she did not pause to wonder about the tape and the sheer impracticality of finding a sex offender in a crowd. This sincerity, uncomplicated by any sophistication whatsoever, is what fuels her considerable charisma. The fact that KTVA is only a CBS affiliate and the staffers not CBS employees did not give Palin pause. To her, this was Katie Couric's CBS, the network she thinks so unfairly skewered her by asking, for instance, what newspapers she reads. It's all a seamless conspiracy of them - they and them and those and them and all those elites who . . . she'll show 'em.

The Republican establishment, so supine when McCain made his choice and so gleeful when Palin attacked Democrats, cannot get this particular genie back in the bottle. Palin has become a force, and anyone who watched her Sunday had to conclude that she might well run for president. The polls say she can't win. I betcha Palin thinks she can't lose.

cohenr@washpost.com

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