‘Katty, tell me they think Palin’s crazy.’
Every now and again I get a call from a friend in Europe asking me to translate America. For much of the Bush administration, and in particular after his reelection in 2004, the question dripped disdain and even anger. “How could you even live there?” my husband’s Scottish relatives would moan, with that particular brand of barely disguised sanctimony only dour Scots are capable of. It was as if I was somehow personally responsible for the election of GW, the bombing of Afghan civilians, the invasion of Iraq and the atrocities of Abu Ghraib all in one neat package.
Those years of war induced anti-Americanism were the low point of my thirteen years here.
So in contrast, the question I got from home the other day, “Katty, tell me they think Palin’s crazy,” seems a relative breeze. Except it isn’t. Because I don’t know how to answer. Defending the right, even the need, of objective foreign journalists to live and work through the doctrine of preemptive action was frankly simple compared to explaining the puzzle that is the Palin effect.
Yes, clearly a lot of Americans I meet do indeed think the soon to be former Governor of Alaska is not only deranged but dangerous (see Al Franken on the subject.) But I live in Washington DC and have begun to wonder whether my political true north isn’t better found by assuming that on this subject the views of most people I meet are simply the diametric opposite of those in much of the rest of the country. How else can I account for her high approval ratings? And how else to make sense of moves which the political establishment assume amount to political suicide but her supporters tell me amount to political genius. In all my years here I have never encountered a figure more fascinating, more divisive and more indicative of this bi-polar country. It is not even so much that Palin is enigmatic (although I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what she really meant in that resignation ramble) it is the enigma she reveals in American society that is so hard to put my finger on.
It is testimony to the degree of international interest in Sarah Palin that I was asked last week by editors in London to do a 5 minute piece on her (an epic in TV terms) and the request had come before she even announced her resignation. During the course of interviews for the piece one thing friend and foe alike could agree on is that there is nothing traditional about this politician. She operates according to her own agenda often defying all political norms. Whether she can get to the White House without at some stage becoming a more conventional politician is a different question, but certainly this singularity makes both her and her impact even harder to read.
Was that speech in her back yard on Friday inspired in its break-out-of-the-Beltway unconventionality or was it the bizarre wild gamble it seemed? In other words, is she crazy, or are we?
So when that question came through from Britain, I was stumped. At the risk of sounding Clintonian, it depends of course on the definition of “they.” Which is where Europeans so often fall down in their understanding of this huge country. They simply assume there is one national response and that there is a united “they” to talk about. They are wrong, of course. But help me out, and I’ll send back a more coherent reply, do you think she’s crazy?