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In Defense of Sarah Palin

Norman Podhoretz

Nothing annoys certain of my fellow conservative intellectuals more than when I remind them, as on occasion I mischievously do, that the derogatory things they say about Sarah Palin are uncannily similar to what many of their forebears once said about Ronald Reagan.

It’s hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this “airhead,” this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent. They readily acknowledged that his political views were on the whole close to ours, but the embarrassing primitivism with which he expressed them only served, they said, to undermine their credibility. In any case, his base was so narrow that he had no chance of rescuing us from the disastrous administration of Jimmy Carter.

Now I knew Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan. Then again, the first time I met Reagan all he talked about was the money he had saved the taxpayers as governor of California by changing the size of the folders used for storing the state’s files. So nonplussed was I by the delight he showed at this great achievement that I came close to thinking that my friends were right and that I had made a mistake in supporting him. Ultimately, of course, we all wound up regarding him as a great man, but in 1979 none of us would have dreamed that this would be how we would feel only a few years later.

What I am trying to say is not that Sarah Palin would necessarily make a great president but that the criteria by which she is being judged by her conservative criticsnever mind the deranged hatred she inspires on the lefttell us next to nothing about the kind of president she would make.

Take, for example, foreign policy. True, she seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership. After all, her rival for the vice presidency, who in some sense knows a great deal, was wrong on almost every major issue that arose in the 30 years he spent in the Senate.

What she does knowand in this respect, she does resemble Reaganis that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn. Jimmy Carter also has a high IQ, which did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst presidents in American history, and so does Bill Clinton, which did not prevent him from befouling the presidential nest.

Unlike her enemies on the left, the conservative opponents of Mrs. Palin are a little puzzling. After all, except for its greater intensity, the response to her on the left is of a piece with the liberal hatred of Richard Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush. It was a hatred that had less to do with differences over policy than with the conviction that these men were usurpers who, by mobilizing all the most retrograde elements of American society, had stolen the country from its rightful (liberal) rulers. But to a much greater extent than Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush, Sarah Palin is in her very being the embodiment of those retrograde forces and therefore potentially even more dangerous.

I think that this is what, conversely, also accounts for the tremendous enthusiasm she has aroused among ordinary conservatives. They rightly see her as one of them, only better able and better positioned to stand up against the contempt and condescension of the liberal elites that were so perfectly exemplified by Mr. Obama’s notorious remark in 2008 about people like them: “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

But how do we explain the hostility to Mrs. Palin felt by so many conservative intellectuals? It cannot be differences over policy. For as has been pointed out by Bill Kristolone of the few conservative intellectuals who has been willing to say a good word about Mrs. Palinher views are much closer to those of her conservative opponents than they are to the isolationists and protectionists on the “paleoconservative” right or to the unrealistic “realism” of the “moderate” Republicans who inhabit the establishment center.

Much as I would like to believe that the answer lies in some elevated consideration, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the same species of class bias that Mrs. Palin provokes in her enemies and her admirers is at work among the conservative intellectuals who are so embarrassed by her. When William F. Buckley Jr., then the editor of National Review, famously quipped that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, most conservative intellectuals responded with a gleeful amen. But put to the test by the advent of Sarah Palin, along with the populist upsurge represented by the Tea Party movement, they have demonstrated that they never really meant it.

Whether Buckley himself really meant it may be open to question, but it is certain that his son Christopher (who endorsed Mr. Obama) does not now and probably never did. Listen to the great satirist who blogs under the name of Iowahawk, writing in the fictional persona of T. Coddington Van Voorhees VII, son of the founder of The National Topsider, which he describe as a “once respected conservative magazine” now controlled by a bunch of “state college neanderthals.”

“For more than a year,” Van Voorhees tells us, “I have warned that . . . the conservative movement risked abandonment by its few remaining serious intellectuals”“luminaries” like “the vivacious [Washington Post columnist] Kathleen Parker, Dame Peggy Noonan, and those two mighty Davids of conservative letters, Frum and Brooks“and “being overrun by the unsightly hordes of Wal-Mart untermenschen typified by the loathesome ‘Tea Party’ rabble” with their “base enthusiasms and simian grunts. As is now obvious, events have proven me right.”

I fear that the attitude satirically exaggerated here by Iowahawk is what underlies the rejection of Sarah Palin by so many conservative intellectuals. When push came to shove, they could not resist what Van Voorhees calls Mr. Obama’s “prodigious oratorical and intellectuals gifts” and they could not resist attributing Sarah Palin’s emergence as a formidable political force to “the base enthusiasms and simian grunts” of “the loathesome Tea Party rabble.”

As for me, after more than a year of seeing how those “prodigious oratorical and intellectual gifts” have worked themselves out in action, I remain more convinced than ever of the soundness of Buckley’s quip, in the spirit of which I hereby declare that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.

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