Elites play game used on presidents from Washington to Bush.
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What does any of this have to do with Sarah Palin? As the New York Times Magazine recently noted, there is a caricature now abroad in the land of the former Alaska governor “as a vapid, winking, press-averse clotheshorse.” In other words, Sarah Palin is an idiot. Dumb as a post. Too dumb, but of course, to be president.
This mother of five with a successful marriage, the woman who, without benefit of a famous name or marriage, has been elected successively to positions as city council member, mayor, president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors, served as the appointed (by the then-governor) chairman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission before being elected governor herself — this before becoming only the second woman to be tapped for a major party vice-presidential nomination, a successful author and bona fide TV star like Reagan — this is the woman who is now presented by everybody from GOP Establishment types to liberal enemies as just a vacant Barbie-style version of other men who were too dumb to be president. Goldwater? Romney? Ford? Reagan? Kemp? Bush 43? Bush 41? Like them all, Sarah Palin is just too dumb to be president.
To ask why so many elites dismiss Sarah Palin as dumb is to ask not only the wrong question but to willfully ignore a by-now very, very distinct pattern. It is, yes, a pattern of modern media treatment with prominent Republicans that is discernible as far back as Dwight Eisenhower. But in fact what some call Palin Derangement Syndrome is merely the modern face of elitist arrogance that has been present since the evolution of America itself as just one more colonial outpost of the British Empire.
No less than George Washington was denied a commission in the British Regular Army as a young man because he was seen by British elites as a more spectacular example of what Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner called “the incompetent provincial soldier.” It wasn’t simply that American colonists couldn’t cut it professionally, in this view, it was that those who ran and served in the British Regular Army were, don’t you know, just so much smarter than their American-born subjects. In a word, the British elites of the day were snobs. And they looked at young George Washington, already a young man of considerable military experience, as just too dumb — not to mention unworthy — to be a commissioned officer in the British Regular Army.
The British, famously, learned the hard untruth of this some twenty-plus years after haughtily refusing to give Washington a commission he had manifestly earned as an officer of the colonial militia. Washington may have been too dumb to serve in the British Regular Army but he wasn’t too dumb to be the winning general of the American Revolution.
But the arrogant attitude, the we-is-better/smarter/more plugged-than-thou approach to life remained in some sectors of American life even as the British retreated, humiliated at the hands of Washington.
In terms of the American presidency and those who wished to run for the job, the first American to seriously face this too-dumb-and unworthy attitude was the man now considered the co-founder of today’s Democrats. That would be Andrew Jackson.
Facing John Quincy Adams for the presidency in 1824, the Jackson-Adams battle was infinitely more than a battle between two men of differing political views. Adams was American Establishment Royalty, a category already well come-to- life by the time this son of Founder and ex-president John Adams began his career. At an early age, freshly graduated from Harvard, Adams was set on a path well-salted by elitists of the day. He was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature, served as a diplomat or Minister in the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. He was elected to the U.S. Senate, served as a Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, where he was known for speaking fluent Latin and reading the Bible in Greek. By the time he faced Jackson he was James Monroe’s Secretary of State.
Jackson was everything Adams was not. A rough-and-tumble frontiersman, spottily educated but enough to become a country lawyer, he was the embodiment of what was then seen as the American Western frontier. His fame came from his role in the American military, a brutal Indian fighter who emerged as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Briefly a U.S. Senator, Jackson was rough-hewn and plain-spoken, like Palin the very embodiment of everything the refined fledgling Eastern Establishment of the day simply could not abide.
After losing to Adams in a hotly controversial 1824 election settled in the House of Representatives (which Jacksonians dubbed “the corrupt bargain”), Jackson roared back in 1828 to serve two presidential terms as the bane of the American Establishment, launching among other things a successful war on the Bank of the United States, roughly speaking the Federal Reserve of its day. He was decidedly anything but too dumb to be president, and in fact well outranks Adams in those historian-generated “great presidents” ranking lists.
What began with the blistering fight between Jackson and Adams has in one fashion or another rooted itself in today’s world as an ongoing battle between the American Liberal Establishment, its media acolytes (what Palin refers to as the “lamestream media”) and American conservatives.
If Andrew Jackson was pilloried in the day as little short of a hot-tempered barbarian from the frontier who was not good enough or smart enough to wipe the soles of John Quincy Adams’ fancy Boston boots, since at least 1952 the image of the dumb-conservative or dumb Republican has become the modern telling of this tale.
Successively Republicans as varied as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, George Romney, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, George W. Bush, John McCain and now Sarah Palin have been presented as some version of the following: bumbling and unimaginative (Eisenhower), a tricky, un-classy smear artist unworthy of being on the same stage as the polished liberal champion JFK (Nixon), a shockingly unstable dumb idiot with psychiatric problems (Goldwater), dumb as a post (Romney), dumb jocks (Ford and Kemp), a lightweight (Bush 41), a vapid pretty-boy (Quayle), a boring, clueless old man from Kansas (Dole) and run-of-the-mill dumb idiot with degrees from Yale and Harvard who was really dumb because he loved the Forbidden Culture of Texas (Bush 43). McCain, like Romney and Ike, was a media hero until he became a serious potential president — at which point he suddenly morphed into a dumb mad-hatter with a lobbyist mistress, a Barbie-like vice-presidential nominee, and a thing for grilling steaks on a grill in the Arizona desert. The latter of which was so drearily middle-class.
Which is to say, the treatment that is now being prepared for Palin if she decides to make a run for the 2012 presidential nomination is nothing new if you are a Republican, much less a conservative. You are simply too dumb to be president.
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