President Obama set the perfect tone and delivered the right message in that Tucson arena. Sarah Palin, in attempting to upstage him by uploading her fireside chat hours earlier, stepped on her own message in using ill advised and inflammatory words. The President’s speech is being compared and contrasted with Clinton’s Oklahoma and Bush’s 9/11. Aside from all being delivered against a backdrop of national trauma, the degree of that trauma and the times were different. In a sense, each speech should stand by itself. That said, all were delivered in the respective President’s first term and each man more than rose to the occasion — both Clinton and Bush were subsequently reelected.
What struck me about the Palin chat had nothing to do with language or even her pushback against the press. Truth is, the Fourth Estate is an easy target, an institution that has lost much of its standing with Americans across the political spectrum. So, without discounting their objectivity, some of the assessments I’ve seen reflect a degree, albeit understandable, of defensiveness. That, together with the outrage over the blood libel language may have obscured the fact that the Palin performance was a distinct break with what, for the most part, we’ve seen in the past. In watching this carefully constructed presidential-like moment with its reverent reference to Reagan and visual tip-of-the-hat to FDR, it appears that Palin either has new handlers or that they have taken a new turn with her. The mystery of why it took her days to respond is solved. They wanted to take the time necessary to properly stage a response with the same kind of right tone sought by Obama. And stage it they did. Atmospherics have always played a significant role in our politics. Seventy or so years later, we still call these fireside chats even though, when delivered by FDR over the radio, the cozy image was mostly one conjured up in the mind of the listener. In those days listeners saw radio as much as they heard it.
In yesterday’s talk, the usual shrill Palin voice was taken down several octaves and the outfit appropriately sedate. The flag was obviously enhanced with some shaping device and the fire just perfect, but in all fairness such staging is political commonplace. The point is that the Palin we saw was not the screamer or the caught in the headlights deer, but someone intent on projecting something new — an insider not an outsider. Was this the virtual announcement moment? I don’t know, but it did strike me that those who’ve discounted Palin (I among them) should take a good look at his little talk. It’s easy to label her an opportunistic entertainer, but if yesterday is any barometer that narrow assessment would be a serious mistake.
What struck me in watching Obama in Tucson was the intrinsic power of the Presidency. Yes John Boehner is Speaker of the House and the Republicans won big in November, yes Sarah Palin tried to upstage him, but Presidents get the headlines, set the tone and, in challenging times particularly, define the conversation. They have the last quoted word. Just as Democrats should not underestimate the former Governor of Alaska, Republicans shouldn’t start thinking about restoring that radiant yellow rug in the Oval Office. Again, both Clinton and Bush were reelected after their Tucson moments. It is to the President that we look at times of perceived national crisis and, even if not generally in his corner, we tend to be both grateful and generous in our assessment. I never liked or trusted George Bush (and with good reason), but his September 2001 speeches were admirable. If Palin’s fireside might be seen as if nothing else than testing the waters of an altered image, Obama’s arena moment reminded us of what is within him and perhaps provided a hint what we can expect from him in the days ahead. Again, my message here is that we shouldn’t underestimate Palin, but also that it’s hard to overestimate the power of office, most especially the presidency.
A final thought. It’s of course a sign of our times that Palin came to us yesterday via Facebook and that her talk went viral via YouTube (from her standpoint, for the wrong reason). It speaks to both the explosive power of these new twenty-first century media — Facebook 2004, YouTube 2005 — and to a modicum of control they provide to those delivering a message. No reporters were standing in line shouting questions as Palin walked into her living room or onto a set. To be sure, that meant forgoing views of her shaking hands with the crowd or embracing the bereaved in real time, but it also shielded her from an important kind of scrutiny. Her voice is certainly new in that video, her look more mainstream certain, but we still don’t know how she can handle questions from Katie or, despite her projecting a little more scope and substance in prepared remarks these days, whether she remains substantively and intellectually stuck looking out her window at Russia. Whether the ghost authors of her books and that speech are within her or hired hands for controlled moments remains to be tested. For now, she seems determined to keep it virtual and safely among friends. That won’t always be possible.