THE WEEKLY STANDARD -09/22/08 – By: Steven F. Hayward
Give ’em Hell, Sarah – Like Truman, a natural-born executive
Lurking just below the surface of the second-guessing about Sarah Palin’s fitness to be president is the serious question of whether we still believe in the American people’s capacity for self-government, what we mean when we affirm that all American citizens are equal, and whether we tacitly believe there are distinct classes of citizens and that American government at the highest levels is an elite occupation.
It is incomplete to view the controversy over Palin’s suitability for high office just in ideological or cultural terms, as most of the commentary has done. Doubts about Palin have come not just from the left but from across the political spectrum, some of them from conservatives like David Frum, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will. Nor is this a new question. To the contrary, Palin’s ascent revives issues and arguments about self-government that raged at the time of the American founding and before. Indeed, the basic problems of the few and the many, and the sources of wisdom and virtue in politics, stretch back to antiquity.
American political thought since its earliest days has been ambiguous or conflicted about the existence and character of a “natural aristocracy” of governing talent. If the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are watching the storm over Palin, they must surely be revisiting their famous dialogue about America’s governing class. Adams’s widely misunderstood argument that there should perhaps be an explicit recognition and provision for an aristocratic class finds its reprise in the snobbery that greeted Palin’s arrival on the scene.It’s not just that she didn’t go to Harvard; she’s never been on Meet the Press; she hasn’t participated in Aspen Institute seminars or attended the World Economic Forum. She hasn’t been brought into the slipstream of the establishment by which we unofficially certify our highest leaders.
The issue is not whether the establishment would let such a person as Palin cross the bar into the certified political class, but whether regular citizens of this republic have the skill and ability to control the levers of government without having first joined the certified political class. But this begs an even more troublesome question: If we implicitly think uncertified citizens are unfit for the highest offices, why do we trust those same citizens to select our highest officers through free elections?
In his reply to Adams, Jefferson expressed more confidence that political virtue and capacity for government were not the special province of a recognized aristocratic class, but that aristoi (natural aristocrats) could be found among citizens of all kinds: “It would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.” Jefferson, moreover, trusted ordinary citizens to recognize political virtue in their fellow citizens: “Leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise.”
Today’s establishment doubts this. The establishment is affronted by the idea that an ordinary hockey mom–a mere citizen–might be just as capable of running the country as a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This closed-shop attitude is exactly what both Jefferson and Adams set themselves against; they wanted a republic where talent and public spirit would find easy access to the establishment.
Part of what bothers the establishment about Palin is her seeming insouciance toward public office. Her success with voters, and in national office, would be n affront and a reproach to establishment self-importance. Anyone who affects making it look easy surely lacks gravitas and must not grasp the complexity or depth of modern political problems. Partly this is the self-justification for establishment institutions and attitudes, but partly it represents the substantive view that the size and complexity of modern government require a level of expertise beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. Some of the doubts about Palin are doubts about self-government itself.
So far no one has picked up on the significance of Palin’s invocation of Harry Truman in her convention speech. Her reference was more than just a bridge to a heartland-versus-Beltway theme. Truman, recall, was the only president of the 20th century who was not a college graduate. Less than two months after abruptly taking over from FDR with no preparation, Truman wrote his wife Bess describing his quick progress in taking the reins: “It won’t be long before I can sit back and study the whole picture and tell ’em what is to be done in each department. When things come to that stage there’ll be no more to this job than there was to running Jackson County and not any more worry”.
In retrospect it is clear that Truman “got it.” He didn’t need any more “experience” to master the job. “Well I’m facing another tall day as usual,”he ended that letter to Bess; “But I like ’em that way.”
Ronald Reagan evinced the same attitude toward office as Truman and Palin. In fact, on closer inspection, one can hear in the criticism of Palin the echo of the same kind of complaint made against Ronald Reagan throughout his political career. Never mind that he’d been governor of California. That this graduate of Eureka College–where?–had made his career in Hollywood, a place as exotic and peculiar as Alaska, was decisive with the establishment. “Reagan’s election,” John P. Roche, a former head of Americans for Democratic Action, wrote in 1984, “was thus an 8-plus earthquake on the political Richter scale, and it sent a number of eminent statesmen–Republican and Democratic–into shock.” It wasn’t only liberals who found Reagan incomprehensible. “No previous president of the United States,” Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote shortly after Reagan’s election in 1980, “had so bizarre a preparation for political office.”
John Sears, whom Reagan had unceremoniously fired from his campaign in 1980, later put his finger on a key aspect of Reagan’s strength, “Since the primary prerequisite for handling the presidency is to ignore the immensity of it, a president must find the confidence to do so in self-knowledge. . . . Reagan knows himself better than most presidents and has kept his identity separate from politics. Reagan knows who he is and therefore he possesses the first prerequisite for being a good president.”
In his third summit meeting with Gorbachev, Reagan wondered aloud what would happen if the two of them closed the doors to their office and just quietly slipped away: “How long would it be before people missed us?” Can one imagine Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton (or John McCain for that matter) wondering such a thing?
For Truman and Reagan the key ingredient to successful statecraft was simplicity. “I say there are simple answers to many of our problems–simple but hard,” Reagan liked to say; “It’s the complicated answer that’s easy, because it avoids facing the hard moral issues.” Churchill wrote that he immediately liked Truman when they met for the first time in Berlin in 1945 because he could see that Truman possessed the “obvious power of decision.” We can see already from Palin’s record–unseating a governor of her own party, delivering a long-blocked pipeline deal–that she shares this trait; another six years in the governor’s office isn’t likely to tell us anything we can’t already discern if we don’t let status bias get in the way.
Reagan and Truman forced their way into grudging acceptance and eventual recognition by the establishment through genuine and hard-earned political success, and Palin too will have to prove herself. She shows signs of sharing their humility, power of decision, and simplicity toward self-government.
In her first innings, Palin has offered a unique display of the capacity that John Adams described as the essence of a “natural aristocrat” in America: “By an aristocrat I mean every man who can command two votes–one besides his own.” Here Adams was reminding us of the centrality of substantive persuasion in political life, something Republicans haven’t been very good at of late. The talking heads of the establishment deprecated Palin’s debut. “Sure, she gives a good speech, but . . .” They should be saying to Palin, “Welcome to the aristocracy, governor.”
Steven F. Hayward is F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989, to be published in early 2009.
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