Perhaps It Doesn’t Matter What You Actually Say but Only How You Say It

At the GOP’s rally against the Iran nuclear deal, one of the featured speakers was Sarah Palin, who said the following:

“So up there in Alaska, across the way Russia. You know there is a name for this taking advantage of America. There is a Russian name for that. And it is called fortushka. And that means Obama’s window of opportunity. So as Obama leads from behind the skirt of his right-hand man, Valerie Jarrett, then it’s up to Congress to close that window. He may propose. You dispose, Congress. You gotta be in it to win it because we want peace. With unapologetic mighty red, white, and blue, will have peace.”

Most progressive commentators who have reported on this speech—including Rachel Maddow and the Daily Kos–have simply asked rhetorically whether anyone has a clue about what she may have been trying to say.

But several things do need to be said about this speech.

First, this was not Sarah Palin speaking off-the-cuff from some remote location in Alaska. This was a former Republican vice-presidential nominee speaking as a featured part of the program at one of the party’s focal events, in Washington, D.C., intended to highlight its opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

Second, if you look at the video, Palin appears to be speaking from prepared remarks: that is, she keeps looking down at something that she appears to be trying to hold flat against the surface of the podium. One assumes that it is the text of her speech.

Third, when she finished speaking, she did receive a response that seemed considerably more enthused than anything that might be described as polite applause.

Lastly, all of us at some time or another receive written assignments from our students that are incoherent because of confusion, carelessness, more basic issues with literacy, or some combination of those factors, but even measured against that baseline, this public utterance is dreadfully inarticulate. If it were part of a piece of student writing, I would stop identifying individual errors and wonder what other approach might actually be of some, or any, benefit to such a student.

But, in a very ironic sense, because Palin’s recurring massacres of the English language—of the very notion of language–are widely acknowledged, even expected, her utterances seem to have now become a weird baseline for political rhetoric: that is, English that simply sounds coherent is now often treated as if it is statesmanlike.

When Hugh Hewitt asked Donald Trump to identify by their roles some of the key political figures in the Middle East and Trump tried to cover his bumbling responses by railing against such “gotcha questions,” he was actually resurrecting a phrase coined to explain away Palin’s inability to identify a single newspaper or news magazine that she regularly read.

In contrast, Carly Fiorina was praised for not only knowing the answers to the same questions when Hewitt posed them to her, but for offering this explanation for why they were not “gotcha questions”:

“I don’t think they’re ‘gotcha questions’ at all. The questions you’re asking are at the heart of the threat that we face, that our ally, Israel, faces, that the world faces. It is critically important that America lead again in the world. It is critically important that we have a leader in the White House who understands the world and who’s in it and how it works. Who has been to these places. Who has met these leaders. Some of this you can read about in a briefing book, but there’s one level of understanding that you get when you read something. There’s another level of understanding that you get when you’re sitting in the back of a car and a driver gives you a map and Israel literally wiped off the face of the map. That’s a whole different level of understand, and I think that’s the kind of leadership we need the White House, honestly.”

Although I don’t think that this answer is simply glib, it is not really all that substantive or even coherent if one takes any time to examine it closely.

First, simply knowing who the political figures are doesn’t necessarily mean that Fiorina has a more nuanced view of Middle Eastern issues than Trump has. In fact, as far as I can tell, he and she have almost exactly the same view, and she is simply able to make that view sound less reflexive, less doctrinaire.

Second, she talks about meeting “these leaders,” but I doubt very much that she has met any of the leaders that Hewitt asked her to identify—that, in fact, she has met many Middle Eastern leaders at all, aside from Bibi Netanyahu.

Lastly, although the closing anecdote provides a memorable visual, it doesn’t seem to provide the basis for a foreign policy. One would then have to accept the argument that someone picking up a piece of Aryan Supremacist literature left on the seat of a New York cab has thereby gained an incisive insight into the national character and national policies of the United States.

Everyone is asking whether Trump’s ascendancy represents an unprecedented lowering of expectations of candidates vying for the most powerful office in the nation and, indeed, in the world. It is a legitimate question. Geniuses don’t necessarily make effective political leaders. But it is probably even more true that very few politicians with “mass appeal” actually have the political intelligence required to succeed in such a singular position of leadership.



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