10.27.08

Sarah Palin's a Brainiac

The former editor in chief of Ms. magazine (and a Democrat) on what she learned on a campaign plane with the would-be VP.

It's difficult not to froth when one reads, as I did again and again this week, doubts about Sarah Palin's “intelligence,” coming especially from women such as PBS's Bonnie Erbe, who, as near as I recall, has not herself heretofore been burdened with the Susan Sontag of Journalism moniker. As Fred Barnes—God help me, I'm agreeing with Fred Barnes—suggests in the Weekly Standard, these high toned and authoritative dismissals come from people who have never met or spoken with Sarah Palin. Those who know her, love her or hate her, offer no such criticism. They know what I know, and I learned it from spending just a little time traveling on the cramped campaign plane this week: Sarah Palin is very smart.

I'm a Democrat, but I've worked as a consultant with the McCain campaign since shortly after Palin's nomination. Last week, there was the thought that as a former editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine as well as a feminist activist in my pre-journalism days, I might be helpful in contributing to a speech that Palin had long wanted to give on women's rights.

What is often called her “confidence” is actually a rarity in national politics: I saw a woman who knows exactly who she is.

Now by “smart,” I don't refer to a person who is wily or calculating or nimble in the way of certain talented athletes who we admire but suspect don't really have serious brains in their skulls. I mean, instead, a mind that is thoughtful, curious, with a discernable pattern of associative thinking and insight. Palin asks questions, and probes linkages and logic that bring to mind a quirky law professor I once had. Palin is more than a “quick study”; I'd heard rumors around the campaign of her photographic memory and, frankly, I watched it in action. She sees. She processes. She questions, and only then, she acts. What is often called her “confidence” is actually a rarity in national politics: I saw a woman who knows exactly who she is.


Palin's Glass Ceiling Speech

Video screenshot

For all those old enough to remember Senator Sam Ervin, the brilliant strict constitutional constructionist and chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee whose patois included “I'm just a country lawyer"...Yup, Palin is that smart.

So no simple task then, this speech on women's rights. For the sin of being a Christian personally opposed to abortion, Palin is being pilloried by the inside-the-Beltway Democrat feminist establishment. (Yes, she is anti-abortion. And yes, instead of buying organic New Zealand lamb at Whole Foods, she joins other Alaskans in hunting for food. That's it. She is not a right-wing nut, and all the rest of the Internet drivel—the book banning at the Library, the rape kits decision is nonsense. I digress.) Palin's role in this campaign was to energize “the Republican base,” which she has inarguably done. She also was expected to reach out to Hillary Clinton “moderates.” (Right. Only a woman would get both those jobs in either party.) Look, I am obviously personally pro-choice, and I disagree with McCain and Palin on that and a few other issues. But like many other Democrats, including Lynn Rothschild, I'm tired of the Democratic Party taking women for granted. I also happen to believe Sarah Palin supports women's rights, deeply and passionately.

Many of those—not all—who decried the sexist media treatment of Hillary Clinton have been silent as Palin has been skewered in the old ways that female public figures are skewered, as well as a host of sexualized new ways as well. Some feminists have weighed in; “Even the reportedly clear glasses she wears to play down her beauty queen credential and enhance her gravitas can't make up for experience,” writes my heroine Suzanne Braun Levine, former editor of Ms. Oppose her on policy? Fine. But how sad for feminist leaders to sink this low, especially when Palin has worn glasses since she was 10 years old.

Last month a prominent feminist blogger, echoing that sensibility, declared that the media was wrongly buying into the false idea that Palin was a feminist. Why? Well, just because she said she was a feminist, because she supported women's rights and opportunities, equal pay, Title IV—that was just “empty rhetoric,” they said. At least the blogger didn't go as far as NOW's Kim Gandy and declare that Palin was not a woman. Bottom line: you are not a feminist until we say you are. And there you have the formula for diminishing what was once a great and important mass social change movement to an exclusionary club that rejects women who sincerely want to join and, God forbid, grow to lead.

But here is the good news: women, citizens of America's high and low culture, the Economist and People magazine readers, will get it. They got it with Hillary even when feminist leaders were not supporting her or doing so half-heartedly. Yes, Palin is a harder sell, she looks and sounds different, and one can rightfully oppose her based on abortion policies. If you only vote on how a person personally feels about abortion, you will never want her to darken your door. If you care about anything else, she will continue to intrigue you. As Time's Nancy Gibbs noted a few weeks ago, quoting bioethicist Tom Murray, “Sympathy and subtlety are seasonings rarely applied to political red meat.” Will Palin's time come next week? I don't know. But her time will come.