The gloom of Hurricane Gustav was promptly blown away by the arrival of Sarah Palin, the running mate of John McCain, at the Republican Convention in St. Paul. The partisan delegates seemed genuinely thrilled by her acceptance speech. But developments of the past week across the country remind me of an historic truth of politics. Almost fifty years ago, Harold Macmillan, then British prime minister, was asked what he thought was the greatest obstacle to political achievement. “Events, dear boy, events,” came the reply from Macmillan. His words seem to have a powerful resonance in the US presidential campaign today.
The historic nature of Palin’s nomination and her galvanizing effect on the Republican faithful cannot be dismissed. But new revelations about herself and her family almost every day are impossible to ignore either. Some of these are acknowledged. Others are contested. Complaints of exaggeration and distortion abound and threats of legal action fly. Republican advisors are irritated at the questions raised about Palin’s selection by McCain, her qualifications and her views. In the face of persistent questioning by Justine Webb, the BBC Washington correspondent, a senior McCain advisor, Carly Fiorina, seemed angry, calling Palin’s treatment by the media ‘sexist’. With a Democratic presidential candidate of mixed white-African lineage and a female candidate for the vice presidency on the Republican side, race and gender cannot be far from the debate.
It is the unexpected and unwanted events, which I referred to earlier, that represent ‘red lights’ for the Republican campaign. As soon as McCain had announced his surprise choice of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, the troopergate controversy blew up. It involves the dismissal of the Public Safety Commissioner, Walter Monegan, of the state of Alaska by Governor Palin. Was Monegan sacked because he was no good in the job? Or because of his reluctance to fire the Governor’s ex-brother-in-law? On September 4, the Washington Post reported that it had seen an e-mail from Governor Palin, harshly criticizing Alaska state troopers for their failure to sack her former brother-in-law and ridiculing an investigation into her own conduct in the affair.
Then the announcement came that her teenage daughter was pregnant with her boyfriend. Palin is a strong advocate of sexual abstinence before marriage. So the episode was bound to pose a serious dilemma, as well as cause discomfort, for the Palin family. America is a country of fascinating contrasts. It is a nation where state and religion are supposed to remain separate. But religious and moral debate has acquired an increasingly important role in politics, most notably, but not exclusively, on the Republican side. The risks of this phenomenon are obvious. For those humans who fail to live by what they preach may be accused of inconsistency and hypocrisy.
It gets more embarrassing. According to the New York Times of September 3, Palin’s husband, Todd, is a former member of the Alaska Independence Party – a party which wants to hold a referendum to secede from the United States. And the newspaper quoted officials as saying that she had attended the party’s conventions in 1994 and 2006. As governor, she sent a video-taped message to the convention last year.
How Palin’s religious faith shaped her worldview was illustrated by an address she gave to a church gathering as recently as three months ago. She told the congregation that America sent troops to fight in the Iraq war on a “task that is from God.” Imagine the effect of these words on the people of Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have perished for no fault of their own and millions have been displaced internally or gone into exile.
The Republican Party’s counter-attack on the probing media has begun. But questions about Palin’s past are unlikely to go away. The more appearances Palin makes on the campaign trail, the more interest there is going to be in her. And the more questions both McCain and Palin are going to face. From tabloids like the National Enquirer to highbrow papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, a range of news outlets have deployed extra staff. Alaska has become a favorite haunt for many reporters.
The problem the Republicans face in this campaign is simple, yet considerable. There is so much interest in Governor Sarah Palin, because so little is known about her. It is a problem which is easy to understand, but difficult to tackle as ‘events’ unfold.
I have witnessed political storms caused by events in my time. In his address to the Republican National Convention, John McCain ran through his military record, which thousands of party faithful applauded and more admire across America. As the speech went on, I heard the words ‘back to basics’. They instantly reminded me of Britain in 1993. The government of Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was weak and tired. Major was struggling with the grim state of the economy and social unrest. At a time of need for a huge investment of new ideas and money, the governing Conservative Party launched, perhaps fatally, the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign. It was filled with high moral tone, at a time when the baggage of divisive, failing policies was heavy.
The campaign sparked intense public interest in the private lives of elected politicians in Britain. It was unfair to individuals. But the public interest was legitimate, precisely because it was an attempt to impose a set of rules on the vast majority of people that the imposers themselves did not respect. Exposé after exposé followed and powerful figures were forced to resign. The tide overwhelmed the Major government, ending in a resounding defeat in the 1997 general election – a humiliation from which the Conservative Party has only recently begun to recover.
There are episodes of history in America and elsewhere that mirror the fate of the Major government and shout out loud the lesson to be learned. When politicians bring prescriptive solutions to moral and ethical questions, they do so at their own peril. These questions are best left to the law and the courts.
The above commentary was published in CounterPunch on 5 September 2008.