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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Palin Is No Puppet

Of the many unflattering caricatures of Sarah Palin that litter the political landscape, the notion that she is a dummy or a puppet -- a mere figure for manipulation by a superior brain -- is probably the most prevalent. She has even been given a mock "endorsement," bestowed in a YouTube video by the so-called Ventriloquist Dummies of America Association, for her supposed likeness to an inert object of play.

So let's just say this at the top: Palin is not anyone's puppet. It is not true for her, just as it was not true for George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and a long list of politicians who have been accused of having their strings pulled by one puppet master or another.

The image of the politician as puppet is among the oldest tropes in American politics. When William McKinley ran for president in 1896, political cartoonists had fun sketching him seated on the knee of Mark Hanna, a reputed Svengali of that era. No less a figure than John Adams, the Republic's second president, came to believe that George Washington, as the first chief executive, had been a puppet of the conniving Alexander Hamilton, Washington's brilliant Treasury secretary. Perhaps Adams's judgment was influenced by his wife, Abigail, who once wrote of Hamilton, "O, I have read his Heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them."

But on this point, history's verdict is clear: Successful politicians are almost never anyone's dummy. Although it sometimes takes the passage of time and the release of documentary evidence to establish that judgment, there is virtually no case of such a figure proving true to caricature -- an empty vessel, a stick figure, a parrot.

Such portraits invariably have more to do with the manner in which ill-informed or biased journalists, jealous rivals, and self-promoting advisers mischaracterize the political figure in question than with reality. "Think about this: People sometimes think they are having an effect [on the politician] when they are pushing on an open door," noted political scientist Fred Greenstein, the author of a 1982 book on Dwight Eisenhower, The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader, that demolished the widespread belief that Ike was a lazy, figurehead president.

Now comes, predictably, the insistent rendering of Palin as a puppet, a portrayal that flies in the face of evidence that she possesses deep, if not always well-informed, personal convictions about America's role in the world. This criticism extends well beyond the political-humor crowd. It is at the heart of an anti-Palin narrative, peddled by cognoscenti in the media and foreign-policy elite, that depicts her, in patronizing fashion, as profoundly inept, like a small child unable to function without adult guidance. A typical example is Palin's increasingly belligerent tone on confronting a nuclear-weapons-seeking Iran. In adopting the view that the U.S. may one day have to bomb Iran to keep the mullahs from gaining nukes, Palin is said to be doing the bidding of the same camp of neoconservatives who campaigned for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"Isn't it a little scary to have someone like Sarah Palin speaking words put in her mouth by ideologues?" MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked rhetorically on his show, Hardball, in February. In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and host of the CNN show GPS, said that Palin was picking up her idea to "declare war on Iran" in a confused fashion from Daniel Pipes, a neocon analyst on Middle East affairs. Zakaria parenthetically added, with a heavy sigh, "It's getting tiresome to keep pointing out her serial gaffes, but Palin does appear to be running for president."

They Did It To Reagan, Too

Even within Republican circles in Washington, there is a school of thought that Palin is a "blank page," a tempting device for would-be handlers, as a former Bush staffer told a British journalist. This impression is fed, if inadvertently, by supporters who labor too hard to vouch for her intellectual credentials. Thus, in a blog posting, the veteran GOP hand Fred Malek offered this description of Palin's performance at an Alfalfa Club dinner of Washington VIPs to which he had invited her: "It was great to see her in deep conversations with people like Alan Greenspan, Madeleine Albright, Walter Isaacson, and Mitch McConnell. For sure, nothing shallow about this lady." (Continues here)

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