Former Governor Sarah Palin has become an object of criticism and ridicule for writing notes on the palm of her hand while giving a speech and interview in connection with the Tea Party convention. Keith Olbermann on MSNBC went into paroxysms of laughter and hubris-filled disgust that made one question his authenticity and soundness of judgment more than Mrs. Palin’s. Who cares where she wrote down her notes? Why does this matter at all?
There was plenty that former Governor Palin actually said to the Tea Party convention that was disturbing, no one needs to focus on the sideshow of her palm notes. Palin has a knack for making the hokey comment that drives her opponents wild, in this case asking "how that hopey-changey thing is working out for ya?" Of course, at one level, this is merely a cute attempt to mock the President’s sloganeering during the campaign, although it should be noted that all candidates sloganeer during campaigns. Remember "Read my lips: No new taxes!"? At a deeper level, and among one group of Americans that did not appear to be well represented at the Tea Party convention, President Obama’s election represented a hope and a change that was both historic and deeply personal: For African-Americans, Obama’s election represents the same kind of hope and change that John F. Kennedy’s election represented for Catholics, and Palin is wrong to fail to understand that.
Of course, Palin is not unique in this failure. During the pile-on of Obama before his commencement address at Notre Dame, I kept wondering what the critics, especially the venomous ones, would have to say if they were called upon to preach at St. Augustine Church here in Washington, a historically black Catholic congregation that is somewhat conservative but was also deeply aware of the ground-shifting significance of Obama’s election. Being the first black President is not a free pass on any issue including abortion. But, the inability of some white Americans to see how their words fail to grasp this elemental experience their black fellow Americans have just celebrated shows a lack of human and moral imagination, whether that lack is found in former Governor Palin or in a Catholic bishop.
So, liberals need to start leaving Palin alone on the kind of personal quirks that do not matter and recognize her for what she is: One of the most interesting and compelling voices among conservative Americans, with a bubbly personality that is attractive to many, and a willingness to engage in politics. No matter what you or I may think of her views, hats off to anyone who has the courage to run for office. And, Palin and other critics of the President need to remember that they must differentiate criticism of his policies from criticism of the man. For many Americans, he represents more than a congeries of policies. Catholics around the world kept pictures of JFK on their mantles, whether they voted for him or not and black Americans wince when people demean the hope they feel when they see a black man sitting in the Oval Office and feel included in the American dream in a way they were not before.
Michael Sean Winters