Campaign Crawlers

Trust Not Your Handlers

An open letter to Gov. Sarah Palin.

By 10.7.08

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Dear Gov. Palin:

Congratulations on having survived your introduction to national politics. You left nothing to be desired as you spoke the lines that your handlers in the McCain campaign gave you. Those lines, however, are the kind that would turn almost anyone into Dan Quayle. The following is to warn you against the substance-free, image politics that your handlers practice. To make the contribution to our country that you seem able to make, and to retain your integrity, you must lead the Republican Party's so-called professionals -- not be led by them. So here is an object lesson.

I knew Dan Quayle, and you're no Dan Quayle. As a matter of fact, neither was Dan Quayle the byword for unseriousness that he became from the moment he started running for vice president. A good politician, he beat Indiana's towering political figure Birch Bayh in 1980. In the Senate, he did his homework. On missile defense, I found his mind agile and his judgment sound. Attractive in every way, he was a logical choice for Vice President.

His fatal mistake was to regard the handlers that George Bush gave him as his superiors and teachers, as men he had to please. Even after the American people elected him, he still thought that the likes of Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Darman outranked him in every way. Whereas in fact they were hirelings with no political base, he saw himself as working for them. Even after Quayle hired a staff that was intellectually far superior to Bush's -- people who were to be listened to because of the substance of what they said rather than because of the jobs they held -- Quayle still lacked the intellectual and political confidence to think and speak for himself.

That explains his now famous "deer caught in the headlights" look: it is the look that comes naturally upon anyone who is trying to speak as someone else wants him to, who is trying to imitate, to say things he only half believes. Doing that is very, very hard, and demeaning. As a professor, I've seen graduate students bungle oral exams when they try to finesse the feelings and prejudices of the examining committee's members. "Speak for yourself!" has been my invariable advice. Because Quayle stopped thinking and speaking for himself once he stepped on the national stage, he became a bad imitation of unserious people.

Don't you do that. If you were to internalize the briefing books that are now your sad lot, you would become just another Republican loser. We have so many already who utter platitudes but refuse to say "yes" or "no" and explain why. It is entirely possible to explain the fundamentals of economic or foreign policy in plain English. But doing so requires saying in public the kinds of things said around your house. Doubtless, you know why the banks gave so many "subprime" loans: there was a law that required them to, a law that gave "community organizers" the power to compel them, the very law that started Mr. Obama in politics. If you think such things, say them. As for foreign affairs, is "nation building" a good thing, or not? What is Saudi Arabia to us? On these and countless matters, regardless of who poses the question, you should answer as you think best and defend what you say in your own terms. To the extent you worry what your handlers will think of you, you are cooperating in your own DanQuaylization.

For our country's sake and your own, please keep in mind that these folks are likely your intellectual and moral inferiors. Moreover, once you were chosen, you became their political superior. You rose from private citizen to governor of Alaska by your judgment. By their judgment, they have taken leading roles in wrecking the Republican Party, as well as most of the candidates they have touched. If John McCain wins the campaign they have run, it will be a miracle, in part of your doing.

But, win or lose in 2008, will Sarah Palin survive as the force in American politics that she appeared to be on August 29? She will, to her and her family's honor and to the good of her fellow citizens, if she stops trying to imitate the Republican professionals. Doing so before and after the election will give America the kind of leadership it has not had since Ronald Reagan.

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About the Author
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.