Two women: Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. The first is relentlessly mocked and derided by liberals and the media. The second is still regarded as a paragon of wisdom, despite the fact that her much ballyhooed “reset” of relations with Russia was a total failure, that she misread Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a "reformer," that she botched health care reform as first lady, and that she blamed her husband's troubles on a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
What explains the mismatch? Our cult of "The Best and The Brightest."
But first: Somebody owes Sarah Palin an apology. Back in 2008, when Palin was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, she said that electing an inexperienced president like Barack Obama could result in an international crisis. What kind of crisis, you ask? Well, for one thing Russia might invade Ukraine.
At the time, a writer for Foreign Policy magazine suggested she was some kind of nitwit for suggesting any such thing:
Speaking Tuesday at a rally in a Reno, Nevada, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin had a little fun with her counterpart on the Democratic ticket, thanking Joe Biden for warning Barack Obama's supporters to "gird your loins" for an international crisis if the Illinois senator wins.
Palin helpfully offered four scenarios for such a crisis, one of which was this strange one:
After the Russian Army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama's reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence, the kind of response that would only encourage Russia's Putin to invade Ukraine next.
As we've said before, this is an extremely far-fetched scenario. And given how Russia has been able to unsettle Ukraine's pro-Western government without firing a shot, I don't see why violence would be necessary to bring Kiev to heel. Watch the upcoming parliamentary elections in December to see if Moscow gets the pliable new government it wants.
Who turned out to be right? Palin has responded on her Facebook page:
Yes, I could see this one from Alaska. I'm usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did, despite my accurate prediction being derided as “an extremely far-fetched scenario” by the “high-brow” Foreign Policy magazine. Here’s what this “stupid” “insipid woman” predicted back in 2008: "After the Russian Army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama's reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence, the kind of response that would only encourage Russia's Putin to invade Ukraine next.
The Washington Post goes on to note:
"I could see this one from Alaska," of course, is a reference to her much-lampooned statement that you can see Russia from Alaska — a comment that was satirized by Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey as "I can see Russia from my house." (The latter statement is often mis-attributed to Palin herself.)
All of this is typical of the contempt with which Palin was treated, starting almost from the moment she was announced as John McCain’s running mate. Consider the interview New York Times columnist David Brooks gave to the Atlantic in November of 2008. After calling Palin a “fatal cancer to the Republican Party,” Brooks went on to say:
Obama has the great intellect. I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I'm getting nowhere with the interview, it's late in the night, he's on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he's cranky. Out of the blue I say, “Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?” And he says, “Yeah.” So I say, “What did Niebuhr mean to you?” For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.
And the other thing that does separate Obama from just a pure intellectual: he has tremendous powers of social perception. And this is why he's a politician, not an academic. A couple of years ago, I was writing columns attacking the Republican congress for spending too much money. And I throw in a few sentences attacking the Democrats to make myself feel better. And one morning I get an email from Obama saying, “David, if you wanna attack us, fine, but you're only throwing in those sentences to make yourself feel better.” And it was a perfect description of what was going through my mind. And everybody who knows Obama all have these stories to tell about his capacity for social perception.
We don’t mean to pick on David Brooks here. In fact, this Brooksian musing is only the modern version of exactly what David Halberstam described in The Best and The Brightest over three decades ago. The Best and The Brightest, of course, was the famous 1970s bestseller by the late New York Times reporter David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Halberstam chronicled the tragic tale of those liberal policymakers of the 1960s who were “modern, activist, contemporary men — the best and the brightest — who came to Washington to build us a Camelot and left behind them a country divided by war, torn by dissent.” He described these people, men with names like Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, William P. Bundy, Dean Rusk, and of course Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as men of “brilliance and hubris and [a] sense of themselves” who “manipulated the public, the Congress and the press from the start…told half-truths” whose “predictions turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate.”
A more telling description of the current administration could not be written.
This is the sort of mentality that begat, for one thing, Obamacare. Imagine a roomful people who believed themselves so brilliant that they could sit behind closed doors and redo one sixth of the American economy.
But as is becoming clear once again, those pronounced as “brilliant” and “cool” often turn out in practice to be not The Best and The Brightest but rather The Worst and the Stupidest. “Dazzling intellect” has nothing to do with plain old-fashioned common sense. And in any given situation it is common sense — a real ability to accurately perceive, understand, and judge events, not to mention, most importantly, other human beings — that is critical to successful governance.
So it's worth going back to see what The Best and The Brightest have wrought. Let’s start with Barack Obama — a brilliant Harvard Law graduate, don’t forget. This Daily Mail story has been making the rounds describing then freshman Senator Obama on a trip to the Kiev in 2005, when he was pushing arms control on Ukraine. Here's the Mail headline: “Senator Obama pushed bill that helped destroy more than 15,000 TONS of ammunition, 400,000 small arms and 1,000 anti-aircraft missiles in Ukraine.” Whoops. Also from the Daily Mail, a report that President Clinton in 1994 signed a treaty known as the Budapest Memorandum that pledged the U.S. would protect Ukraine’s borders — if Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. They did. So the US legally obligated to send troops?
Then there was President Obama haughtily lecturing Mitt Romney during a 2012 debate on the latter’s view that Russia presented a considerable American foreign policy problem. Sniffed Obama in a condescending tone: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Replied Romney: “Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe…Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin…"
And don’t forget about Hillary Clinton — Welesley and Yale Law! Here, as reported by CNN, is the then-Secretary of State in March of 2009 on that “reset” of our relationship with Russia:
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday before sitting down to their working dinner, she presented him a small green box with a ribbon. Inside was a red button with the Russian word “peregruzka” printed on it.
“I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: 'We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together.”
Clinton, laughing, added, "We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" she asked Lavrov.
"You got it wrong," Lavrov said." Both diplomats laughed. "It should be ‘perezagruzka’” (the Russian word for reset), Lavrov said. "This says 'peregruzka,' which means 'overcharged.'"
Now here is Hillary popping up to suddenly compare Putin to the Nazis. So in the course of five years Hillary has gone from a jokey photo up with the Russian Foreign Minister to saying Putin is a Nazi. You can’t make it up.
It is worth recalling here that in April of 1961 America’s dazzling new young president, John F. Kennedy, went to Vienna for a summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The television and still picture images were striking, and thrilled liberals of the day. There was the handsome, Harvard educated, Harvard advised, Pulitzer Prize winning JFK standing next to the short, dumpy, bald, and decidedly not-handsome Khrushchev. There were the classic shots of the elegant looking and well dressed Kennedys, JFK in black tie and Jackie in stunning evening gown, standing with the plainly dressed Nikita and his wife Nina. The liberal media of the day lapped it up, filling reams of copy with stories about the dazzling young couple.
In reality? The Russian cleaned the American’s clock at that summit, as JFK himself ruefully admitted behind the scenes. Khrushchev didn’t give a damn about what Kennedy looked like, that he had a Pulitzer Prize or a beautiful wife and Harvard advisers. He had already seen Kennedy in action in the Bay of Pigs that same month, and JFK had vacillated and allowed a exile invasion of Cuba to go ahead and then refused to provide it military backing. The Bay of Pigs was a quite public disaster, run from start to finish by the same men who would go on to run the Vietnam War. The Vienna summit that followed the Bay of Pigs was an inevitable failure as a result. Khrushchev, like Putin today, bullied the American president, who was nevertheless adored by the media. By the following August, Khrushchev was building the Berlin Wall, knowing full well he would get away with that too. Soon after, Khrushchev was installing nuclear missiles 90 miles off American shores in Cuba, bringing the world breathtakingly close to nuclear war. By then JFK was on his game, ordering a naval blockade of Cuba. The missiles were withdrawn, but not without concessions: JFK later quietly removing Jupiter missiles that had been installed in Turkey.
There is a reason why the current administration keeps getting it wrong — and one that has a direct bearing on the assumed-Clinton 2016 candidacy. Hillary Clinton is the very epitome of the cult of the best-and-the-brightest, a culture that is as arrogant and hubristic as it is repeatedly disastrous in practice.
Voters in 2008 and 2012 chose credentials, when a little common sense would have gone a long way.