In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 12: Palin Paling

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Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner headlined by Sarah Palin . Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Des Moines, Iowa

Event: Sarah Palin speaks to the Republican Party

Traveling Companion: Victoria Klein

“What’s the big deal?” Victoria said after we listened to Mama Grizzly. “She sounds like a PTA president.” And it was true. I expected, at the very least, to be entertained by Sarah Palin–she has been known to give a good speech–but last night’s performance was weird and underwhelming, especially given an atmosphere dripping with presidentiality. Iowa. Two years out. A large crowd, itching to be blown away.

But no. There seemed no purpose to Palin’s speech, unless the point was to lacerate members of the media and Republican establishment (like Karl Rove) who have been slagging Palin 2.0 surrogate Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. There was also no fun to it: Palin seemed testy, her delivery rushed. There was also not much of substance. There were constant repeated paeans to patriots (definition: people who agree with her), the military (definition: people who are out there for the right of journalists to lie–really, she said this) and the constitution, about which she seems profoundly ill-informed. She said several times that Republicans were going to provide Constitutional solutions to America’s problems–as if the Obama Administration were providing unconstitutional remedies. (It’s not enough to merely disagree with the President; you have to make him sound unAmerican in Palin’s twisted little world.)

There was also a brief, hilariously simplistic section on foreign policy, provided, no doubt, by her neoconservative puppeteers. “There’s a distinct pattern here–reaching out to our enemies, slighting our friends,” she said, attempting to sound ominous, a quality that eludes her flat, chirpy voice. Obama had sent a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran (no mention of the crippling sanctions he had also sent). Imagine that! And he had opposed the Israelis on a “housing” question (the question of whether Israelis should be “housed” on internationally-recognized Palestinian territory). He opposed the surge which had brought “victory”  to Iraq, even as “we are surging troops into Afghanistan.” Wait a minute–is he a pacifist or a warmonger?

Her delivery was strange: rushed sentences, choppy intonations. There was no narrative arc or momentum to the speech, just a series of observations that assumed a knowledge of the world as presented by Fox News. It was, much to my surprise, very inside baseball, with all the whining about how the press had been behaving lately (since I’ve been on the road and not glued to a TV, I had to have some of the references explained to me).

She didn’t exactly lose the audience; she disappointed it–there were few roars, there was a perfunctory standing ovation at the end. And I must say: if she actually is intending to run for President, this sort of fluff isn’t going to cut it in Iowa. In Iowa, people have become accustomed to real political meat and potatoes, real policy talk, real proposals. In Iowa, a politician has to stay on the ground, patiently, for months, answering specific questions. In Iowa, a politician has to have a first, second and third act. In Iowa, you can’t do what Tea Party candidates are doing across the country this year–hiding from the voters, hiding from the press.

Victoria is not a political person, but she knows a good speech when she hears one: “You compare her to Hillary Clinton–Hillary knows stuff. And Bill Clinton, you can’t even begin to compare it. Are you telling me that this is all there is to Sarah Palin? Do you actually take her seriously?”

Yes, but not as seriously as I took her before she spoke.

I am going to take a break from blogging for a day or so. It’s Yom Kippur–Ramadan packed into a single day–and I’m going to spend the day wandering through the midwest with my wife, before sending her home on Sunday. We may go down to Kansas state fair; we may head straight to Boulder, Colorado, to visit friends. Along the way, I’ll not atone for my sins–as a Jew, I spend far too much time feeling guilty–but I will continue to think about all that I’ve seen on this trip, now at the halfway point. I suspect that the most profound way to be religious is to learn and serve; flagrant public praying is optional at best.

Victoria clarifies: “I didn’t mean the PTA comment to be critical of PTA presidents, whose work I revere. They’re doing the Lord’s work.” (JK appends: but it was an accurate assessment of their oratorical style, if not the largely unappreciated social capital they add to a community.)

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.