Joe Klein: Sarah Palin's Myth of America





... Nearly 50 years ago, in The Burden of Southern History, the historian C. Vann Woodward argued that the South was profoundly different from the rest of America because it was the only part of the country that had lost a war: "Southern history, unlike American ... includes not only an overwhelming military defeat but long decades of defeat in the provinces of economic, social and political life." Woodward believed that this heritage led Southerners to be more obsessed with the past than other Americans were — at its worst, in popular works like Gone With the Wind, there was a gagging nostalgia for a courtly antebellum South that never really existed.

During the past 50 years, the rest of the country has caught up to the South in the nostalgia department. We lost a war in Vietnam; Iraq hasn't gone so well either. And there are two other developments that have cut into the sense of American perfection. The middle class has begun to lose altitude — there isn't the certainty anymore that our children will live better than we do. More important, the patina of cultural homogeneity that camouflaged 1950s suburbia has vanished. We have become more obviously multiracial. There are lifestyle choices that were nearly unimaginable in 1960 — the widespread use of the birth control pill, the legalization of abortion, the feminist and gay-rights revolutions, the breakdown of the two-parent family. With the advent of television, these changes became inescapable. They intruded upon the most traditional families in the smallest towns. The political impact was a conservative reaction of enormous vehemence.

Enter Reagan. His vision of the future was the past. He offered the temporal pleasures of tax cuts and an unambiguous anticommunism, but his real tug was on the heartstrings — it was "Morning in America." The Republican Party of Wall Street faded before the power of nostalgia for Main Street ... at least a Main Street that existed before America began losing wars, became ostentatiously sexy and casually interracial. In his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, Reagan talked about an America that existed "when I was young and when this country didn't even know it had a racial problem." The blinding whiteness and fervent religiosity of the party he created are an enduring testament to the power of the myth of an America that existed before we had all these problems. The power of Sarah Palin is that she is the latest, freshest iteration of that myth.

The Republican Party's subliminal message seems stronger than ever this year because of the nature of the Democratic nominee for President. Barack Obama could not exist in the small-town America that Reagan fantasized. He's the product of what used to be called miscegenation, a scenario that may still be more terrifying than a teen daughter's pregnancy in many American households. Furthermore, he has thrived in the culture and economy that displaced Main Street America — an economy where people no longer work in factories or make things with their hands, but where lawyers and traders prosper unduly. (Of course, this is the economy the Republican Party has promoted — but facts are powerless in the face of a potent mythology.) Obama is the precise opposite of Mountain Man Todd Palin: an entirely urban creature. He lives within the hilarious conundrum of being both too "cosmopolitan" and intellectual for Republican tastes — at least as Rudy Giuliani described it — while also being the sort of fellow suspected of getting ahead by affirmative action.

The Democrats have no myth to counter this powerful Republican fantasy. They had to spend their convention on the biographical defensive: Barack Obama really is "one of us," speaker after speaker insisted. Really. Democrats do have the facts in their favor. Polls show that Americans agree with them on the issues. The Bush Administration has been a disaster on many fronts. The McCain campaign has provided only the sketchiest policy proposals; it has spent most of its time trying to divert the national conversation away from matters of substance. But Americans like stories more than issues. ...



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Lorraine Paul - 10/9/2008

Mr Wolberg's world doesn't have objectivity or 'nuances'. It has 'assurances', 'certainties', whilst at the same time introducing 'facts' which run counter to what is actually happening.

To quote his assertion that the United States is '...the world's most successful democracy.', proves that he lives in a world of slogans and bumper stickers! Far from being the 'most successful' the United States government has spied on its citizenry, tortured, rendition-ed, lied, and has taken political corruption to new heights.

Mr Wolberg is firmly situated in a world that never was. His incredibly naive assertion that Bush is NOT a candidate denies that he was in the very recent past...twice!! If Mr Wolberg voted for Bush, and it seems as though he did, then he has eschewed following his own 'drug taking' yardstick more than once.

Please don't tell me that he is a typical voter!


Lorraine Paul - 10/9/2008

Mr Wolberg's world doesn't have objectivity or 'nuances'. It has 'assurances', 'certainties', whilst at the same time introducing 'facts' which run counter to what is actually happening.

To quote his assertion that the United States is '...the world's most successful democracy.', proves that he lives in a world of slogans and bumper stickers! Far from being the 'most successful' the United States government has spied on its citizenry, tortured, rendition-ed, lied, and has taken political corruption to new heights.

Mr Wolberg is firmly situated in a world that never was. His incredibly naive assertion that Bush is NOT a candidate denies that he was in the very recent past...twice!! If Mr Wolberg voted for Bush, and it seems as though he did, then he has eschewed following his own 'drug taking' yardstick more than once.

Please don't tell me that he is a typical voter!


Scott Stabler - 9/13/2008

Um, and John McCain's infidelities involving his first wife are okay? What about Cindy McCain's drug usage for which she escaped any kind of punishment? Don't forget the Keeting 5. Lets be a little objective here.


Donald Wolberg - 9/12/2008

Unfortunately Mr.Loftim misses the point. Mr. Bush, whatever his faults or pretension, now or in the past, is a subject for history books--he is not a candidate. Mr. Obama's pretensions, and Mr. Biden's are of the moment--they are candidates. The same applies to Mr. Mccain and Ms Palin. I have issues with a candidate who embelishes or lies or is so inadequate to the task intelelctually, whether it is the number of states we have, a hungry brother in Kenya, a denied grandmother, a former stepfather in Indonesia, or a stolen speech, an inflated resume, wrong-headed policies on major issues of the day, etc., etc. Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden live under those rubrics of reality. Mr. McCain, for all his faults and missteps, and Ms palin, for all of her's do not.That is the substance of my effort, as poor as it may be to accomplish the task, nothing more.


Craig Michael Loftin - 9/12/2008

"For example, Mr. Obama's admitted dalliance with alcohol and drugs, including hard drugs, may well have had physiological consequences..."

And I assume you would apply this to our current president as well, a former alcoholic and cocaine user? No wonder the last eight years have been such a mess!


Donald Wolberg - 9/12/2008

It is good to live in a nation that the absurd has freedom to roam so that the brilliant can find voice. If Mr. Klein's soaring in an ether of superficiality fills the role of the superficial, somewhere we can be sure the "brilliant" finds voice. Such is the nature of the world's most successful democracy. That Mr. Klein is no historian is obvious, but Mr. Klein's lack of ability to differentiate illusion from reality is seriously wanting. Mr. Klein seems to interpret Mr. Obam's rhetorical stumble when off-prompter as an illustration of intellect; his "nuancing" as deep mediatative appraisal of all sides of issues, and his confusing intellectual and biological heritage as reflective of a brave new worldism. I would suggest that this is all the more indiciative of serious intellectual and experiential flaws in the insubstantial creation that has become Mr. Obama. For example, Mr. Obama's admitted dalliance with alcohol and drugs, including hard drugs, may well have had physiological consequences and admits to felonious actions, unless using hard drugs is not a felony where he did so imbibe. This makes Mr. Obama the only Presidential candidate ever to so admit before an election (mr. Clinton "never inhaled." One does not see Mr. Lincoln, that other Illinois politiican, admitting he turned to logs, someone else's trees. Mr. Obama was not sure if he had "visited 57 of our 58 states," a comment ignored by the media. But he was serious; Mr. Obama is always serious and expects us to note that fact. He did not know how many states there are in the lower 48, and might not have been aware of Alaska being a state until Ms Palin became a candidate. One can suppose he knew Hawaii was a state since he was born and lived there. Mr. Obama let us know that we needed "to do away with all forms of carbon," a remarkable statement that left many of us to wonder if this was profound (we are carbon based organisms and perhaps we are to become as ethereal as he seems to believe he is), or if this was another gaff by the Democratic Party leadership. Ms. Pelosi once said she "needed to save the world from oil," and Mr. Reid noted "oil and coal are poisoning us." Mr. Obama's selection of friends, from the "retired terrorists Mr. Ayers and Ms Dorn, the racist and stupidly foolish Reverend Wright and the bizarre reverend Phleger, as well as Mr. Obama's felonious financial and real estate frind in Chicago, speak of a serious lack of judgement. The heroism of growing up a child of an unwed mother and an African father is praised in Mr. Obama's case, but Ms Palin's unwed daughter finds only criticism in the fawning, Obama slant of the popular press, despite the fact that Mr. Obama has ignored his Kenyan brother, apparently living on $1 a month, or his Kenyan grandmother. They do not campaign with him and Muslim ladies with headcoverings are banned from the Obama stage when he speaks, hardly a position of tolerance. Ms Palin's daughter of course will marry the father of her child. At the same age of 17-18, Mr. Obama tells us he was doing alcohol, pot and cocaine. Mr. McCain selected Ms Palin as his running mate, and Mr. Obama selected Mr. Biden. Mr. McCain's brilliant choice (whether intended to be brilliant or not) has unglued the Obama/Biden ticket and sent the ticket into a tailspin. The gaff-prone Mr. Biden's selection (almost as old as Mr. McCaine, an admitted plagerist and a reputation for unending talk) is not a signal that Mr. Obama is up to making presidential choices. Mr. Klein does make us thankful, however, that we all can express our views and takes on history, no matter how sill they may be.


James Jude Simonelli - 9/12/2008

The writer's point is frightening. The fact that it appears to be true in this maddening silly cycle of most serious political times is doubly frightening.

American will get the leadership it deserves, either by the indifference to the facts or adherence to the myths.

As an Obama supporter I have been involved in making phone calls and knocking on doors to solicit votes for Barack Obama for President. Invariably when a devout Republican of racist answers the door it is immediately slammed with the exclamation of some explicative shouted as the door closes.

“Mindless Electorate” comes to mind as a descriptor of such cumulative behavior.

Man (or Woman), Myth and Modernity all seem to go hand in hand in a disregard for the gravity of our current state of the nation AND world.

Frightening, frightening is all I have to repeatedly say.

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