Spiro T. Palin
Forty years ago, mounting a comeback campaign after losing a presidential race eight years earlier, Richard Nixon secured the Republican nomination and then selected as his running-mate a former local official who had served a scant twenty months as the governor of a small state.
The choice was questioned by pundits and mocked by Democrats. They called the vice presidential nominee: "Spiro Who?"
But when Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew hit the campaign trail, he did so as "Nixon's Nixon" - the attack dog the party needed to take the opposition apart while making the Republican presidential nominee look presidential.
It was the same role that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin assumed Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
In her speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president, Palin did a full Agnew.
Like that other Republican vice-presidential nominee in that other time, the newly-minted Republican nominee defended herself against unsettling revelations with regard to her personal and political missteps by attacking the messengers.
"I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone," she announced with a sneer in her voice. "But here's a little news flash for those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this great country."
The "average hockey mom" from Wasilla was devoted most of her first real speech to the American people to the serious political work of tossing verbal brickbats at the men who lead the Democratic ticket.
Palin barely even mentioned Barack Obama or Joe Biden by name. But everyone knew who she was talking about when she picked up her party's new theme of belittling Obama's experience as a community organizer working with laid-off steelworkers in Chicago.
The former mayor of the small city of Wasilla, Alaska, turned questions about whether her tenure in that position qualifies her to be second in line for the presidency into a populist defense of small-town America that highlighted an embarrassing off-the-cuff comment made by Obama at a San Francisco fund-raising event with regard to "bitter" rural voters that embarrassed the Democratic candidate during his Pennsylvania primary campaign.
"(Since) our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves," said Palin. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening. We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco."
Sarcastic, bombastic, at times witty, at times savage, Palin ripped and ridiculed Obama with an eye toward challenging the common sense, logic and patriotism of the Democrat.
I've noticed a pattern with our opponent.
Maybe you have, too.
We've all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers.
And there is much to like and admire about our opponent.
But listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform -- not even in the state senate.
This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word "victory" except when he's talking about his own campaign. But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed ... when the roar of the crowd fades away ... when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot - what exactly is our opponent's plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger ... take more of your money ... give you more orders from Washington ... and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world. America needs more energy ... our opponent is against producing it.
Victory in Iraq is finally in sight ... he wants to forfeit.
Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay ... he wants to meet them without preconditions.
Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?
Government is too big ... he wants to grow it.
Congress spends too much ... he promises more.
Taxes are too high ... he wants to raise them.
Never mind the conflicts between reality and Palin's over-the-top mischaracterizations of Obama's record and positions. The governor of Alaska was not about to be constrained by the facts.
The point was not to debate the Democrats.
The point, as in Spiro Agnew's day, was to destroy the opposition. "(Though) both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have been going on lately about how they are always, quote, ‘fighting for you,' let us face the matter squarely," shouted Palin. "There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you ... in places where winning means survival and defeat means death ... and that man is John McCain."
This is the Sarah Palin America will hear in the fall of 2008.
Those who listen closely will hear echoes of 1968.
The echoes will not be precise.
John McCain is not Richard Nixon.
Barack Obama is certainly not Hubert Humphrey.
There is no George Wallace dividing the Democratic vote.
But there is a Spiro Agnew, and her name is Sarah Palin.
Copyright © 2008 The Nation