11/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sarah Palin--The Next "Great McGinty"?

Sarah Palin--The Next "Great McGinty"?

By Roger Smith

Like most of America, I awoke this morning to read/hear the usual voices of the commentariat holding forth on last night's debate. No surprises there. But I was struck by an email I received from an old friend, an American citizen who has lived abroad much of his life. He is highly intelligent and, while fairly conservative in his views, surely no right-winger. Following watching the VP debate live from Santiago, Chile, J-J had expressed a view that Sarah Palin, while clearly unprepared as of today, just might "be ready by 2012." Here was my somewhat feverish reply to my friend.

Dear J-J:

Ready by 2012 for what? The Presidency? Of what? Surely not the United States. And what if she gets there by, say, 2010?

Sarah Palin is the avatar of our American idiot politics, the apotheosis of know-nothingism and anti-intellectualism. (Yes, I purposely just used two words that Sarah Palin couldn't define if her life depended on it.)

It is her total lack of curiosity about key national and international issues--NOT her lack of experience with them--that really matters to me.

How would you like an enthusiastic amateur who has steadfastly watched "ER" for the last dozen years to operate on your gall bladder? Or maybe a fan of Top Gun pilot the plane you are in? You get my point.

Harry Truman was by common consent, at least today, a great President. He was aptly described as a "common man with uncommon abilities." He had never gone beyond high school, and yet could expound--long before he became Vice-President in 1944--on virtually any issue facing the country or the world.

He was an omnivorous reader who could compare the virtues of Herodotus vs. Thucydides.

We have sadly evolved the "American Idol" school of politics--and Sarah Palin is its ultimate triumph. A slightly gifted amateur for whom the whole country can root as we wait to see whether she can meet some impossibly low standard of "talent" for politics--not skill, not knowledge, not even strong opinions. She isn't even Chauncey Gardiner.

The strongest quality she emanates is wild ambition. That she truly believes she is qualified to be "a heartbeat away from the Presidency" is almost as frightening as the fact that around 40% of the country seems to agree. Her endlessly repeated story of "how she stood up to the good ol' boys of the Alaskan Republic party" is of course virtually a complete myth. She was just an outsider who hadn't yet "paid her dues" but who wanted in on the power/gravy train--fast.

Those same Republicans who supposedly fought her saw her as an ambitious comer, and actually appointed her to a very lucrative (for Alaska--about $140k/yr) low-workload job on the state oil & gas commission. She didn't "stand up to the corrupt bosses" so much as see an opening to advance her career by turning in the head of the commission for what was probably some fairly standard form of back-scratching for the rich and powerful.

Has she done a "good job running Alaska"? Good enough I guess. But enough to account for those sky-high popularity ratings? Not really. Alaska is a perfect petro-state. I suspect that even I could do a decent job of running Qatar or Kuwait. Her big achievement was to radically reduce eliminate state taxes on property, sales or income--and replace them with a big levy on oil and gas production in Alaska--virtually none of which is actually owned by Alaskans, but by the stockholders of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, etc. (A position, incidentally, roundly opposed on a national level by her running mate.)

Thanks to the absurd rise in oil and gas prices, she is now running a $4 billion surplus while lowering taxes--and sending each citizen of Alaska an annual check for $1,000. Of course she's popular. If, in her most famous role as "hockey mom," she had shouted to the entire crowd at the skating arena post game, "All right everybody, pizza and ice cream is on me!" she'd be popular in exactly the same way.

That she allows the dingbats and numbskulls of Alaska--and now America--to think, "Gee, this proves that I could sorta do that job, too" is just an added electoral bonus, the dingbat/ numbskull bloc being as sizeable as it is.

I could go on but I won't. I believe that choosing her is one of the key reasons McCain will in fact lose. Too many ordinary Americans have come to see the risks of voting for someone who does a great impersonation of being jus' folks. It was of course always false about George W.-- a true elitist but with deeply ordinary capabilities, as it has cost America massively to find out.

As for Ms. Palin, I am suspicious of how genuine her shambling manner and identification with ordinary working people is. I think the tip-off was this: her local optician in Wasilla has stated that she tried on 300 different frames (!) before settling on the $375 pair she choose. She is incredibly savvy about her image--just as George W. had, I am sure, a very different accent when he was tapped for Skull & Bones than that down-home twang he now affects, the one with the final g's of every gerund carefully dropped. (It was the same accent that Hillary somehow discovered when she started losing in the primaries.)

Sarah's ludicrous rise strikes me as a reminder of those bus placards of long ago, the ones that showed a simple line drawing of a face and a text that read, "Can you draw this? You too can become a famous artist."

Does this make me an elitist? An insufferable snob? A pointy-headed intellectual? I sure hope so. And I just realized who depicted a career such as hers long ago: Preston Sturges, whose brilliant first directorial effort "The Great McGinty" told the story of some bum off the streets whom the party bosses picked and successfully ran for governor. Gov. McGinty pre-dates Gov. Palin by nearly 70 years. However, it all ended badly for McGinty. I just hope this one doesn't end badly for America.

(Note to John McCain: watch the movie and see how McGinty turned on his benefactors.)

Roger Smith