Author's note: This post will require a bit of a set up before I get to Ken Masugi's National Review article on Sarah Palin and her foreign policy experience. If you just want the article, scroll down and look for the bold.
I got into a frank discussion with a friend today about Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate in which he announced that he would be voting for Barack Obama because he thought McCain had put this country in danger with his choice of Sarah Palin. He says the Governor displays little interest or intelligence on the matters of foreign policy.
Though I made a point of noting I was for Mitt Romney as VP, I naturally protested and pointed out that she had more experience as a governor, a businesswoman, and a mayor. She's done more compromising and deal-negotiating than Obama and Biden combined.
But then I was struck by something: since when was a vice president expected to know anything about foreign policy? Scholars of the Constitution know that most vice presidents are rarely brought into some of the bigger policy questions. John Adams found the job tiring and dreary, while Truman knew little about the atomic bomb before he ascended to the presidency.
Insofar as I can tell, the Constitution affords only two roles to the Vice President -- to inquire daily into the health of the presidency and to break a tie in the Senate. Given our last two vice presidents who took on extra constitutional roles and left us with bigger government, I find a return to this kind of constitutional vice presidency refreshing.
I suspect, however, that much of the dislike of Palin has little to do with her qualifications but with her lack of oratory skills, which were sorely lacking in a recent interview with Katie Couric. As we've had a president whose malapropisms have become the stuff of high selling calendars, it is understandable that many want a smooth-talking president. (I'll concede that Obama is a good speech giver, but I have my doubts given his failures when he isn't speaking on a teleprompter.)
But I've been wondering: should appearance on television disqualify a candidate for higher office? If so, we might be disqualifying some of our finest presidents. Harry S. Truman's nasally voice led him to give few speeches, while Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge rarely said more than a few words in public. (He was more of a writer and thinker, anyhow.) Similarly, the great statesman Abraham Lincoln was known for his high, squeaky voice and would probably unelectable today. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, spoke with a lisp. He so despised public speaking that he sent his "State of the Union" speeches to Congress to be spoken by a member of the House in his stead.
Of course I suspect much of the attack on Palin seizes on her supposed lack of oratory as somehow evidence of her stupidity, inferring no doubt, that if you're good at crafting a phrase, you must be good at leading a country. This is a dangerous precedent to set as some of the nation's greatest orators have been some of the least faithful to the Constitution. LBJ? FDR? Woodrow Wilson?
I don't believe that it's a bad thing for people to believe you are dumb, though, provided you actually aren't and with Palin, the jury seems far from decided. Indeed, when the press determined that Reagan was a dunce, they helped strengthen his hand as he was able to talk with Gorbachev and go over the press to work out deals with Tip O'Neil. Better to blow them away than to appear bright and deliver little. Jimmy Carter, for all his cleverness, wasn't much of a president.
Outside of the coasts, I judge that not much of a premium is placed on good oratory or communication skills in Middle America. People who can give ten point plans often don't grace the prairie or frontier states. There's more of an emphasis on what you've done than what you can say. Where you grow up can heavily influence what you think of the country and our relations to the world. New Yorkers who live next to Ground Zero might have a different view of terrorism than a farmer in Montana and yet that kind of diversity is often omitted from the constellation of diversities that our progressive friends so love.
I would wager that Senator Obama's cosmopolitanism comes from his Hawaiian upbringing, while President Bush's Texan roots probably goes a long way to explaining his fascinating relations with Hispanics.
Here's Ken Masugi's view on how where you grow up can influence your foreign policy upbringing. (I have italicized my favorite paragraph.)
September 29, 2008, 7:00 a.m.
Viewing Russia from Your Window
Reach for your inner Alaska, Governor.
By Ken Masugi
It was not Sarah Palin but her double Tina Fey who said “I can see Russia from my house.” In her interview with CBS’s Katie Couric the real Alaska governor noted “That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It’s funny that a comment like that was. . . .
Declining to elaborate, Gov. Palin should instead have stuck to her geographic guns and wiped smirks off of faces!
Americans do have different perspectives about the world, based on where they live. Let’s start with the old, false, but widely held tale that midwesterners are isolationist, because they don’t live on an ocean, which would widen their view of the world and America’s responsibilities in it. Nonsense: Midwesterners tended to be isolationist because of the high concentration of ethnic Germans, who weren’t eager to shoot Uncle Fritz in either World War. The old political journalist Samuel Lubell pointed this out years ago in his Future of American Politics.
But that stereotype aside, we can note many examples of how geography affects political consciousness, some quite familiar. Americans in the original 13 states may have a distinct historical consciousness shaping their view of the country. Southerners, as displays of the Confederate battle flag remind us, may have a different view of the Civil War than their fellow citizens. Westerners, especially those who are near the Mexican border, view illegal immigration more intensely than those who live elsewhere. See the anecdote-rich How the States Got Their Shapes for less well-known political consequences of State boundaries.
In Harvey Mansfield’s edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, there is a map (p. xvi) showing the American continent, Amerique Anglaise. Alaska is labeled as Amerique Russe. (Keep in mind Tocqueville’s famous conclusion of Russia and America dividing the world between them, based on their radically different visions of politics.) Signs of Russian presence — in forts and Orthodox churches — can still be found throughout the state. In World War II Japan occupied some of the Aleutian Islands, where fierce battles were fought and Alaskans were taken prisoner and shipped to Japan. Hundreds of Aleut Indians were relocated, their villages razed, ostensibly to protect them from Japanese capture. More recently, Soviet and Russian planes have tested Alaskan/American air space. And Alaska is home to our only ground-based ballistic-missile defense site.
Everyone agrees that Alaska remains our last frontier state, even boasting an independence party and a liberal drug policy. Could its geography promote attitudes about foreign relations as well as domestic politics? Indisputably, state history and geopolitics shape the political consciousness of citizens. But do they inform the political awareness of its governor?
We don’t know the answer to this crucial question; the campaign will tell. But that geopolitics exists in every state and has shaped political attitudes and awareness is beyond dispute. “I can see Russia from my house” may in fact make a great campaign slogan, if it signifies a profound understanding of America’s place in a dangerous world. Gov. Palin needs to reach for her inner Alaska, stick to her guns, and turn her hunters into prey.
— Ken Masugi is co-author, co-editor, or editor of seven books on American politics, including two on California.