Sarah Palin: True Grit

When John McCain named Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice presidential running mate, I was sitting in New York City’s oldest saloon, Pete’s Tavern, watching with my father and four of his long-time friends.

The initial reaction of these retired city cops and longshoremen was positive. A gun-toting beauty queen, mother of five, married to a blue-collar union member and small business entrepreneur, who by hard work and audacity beat a corrupt political establishment – what’s not to like? They’d all be proud to have a granddaughter with these achievements.

While the octogenarians were nodding approval, I heard snickers from the white-collar lunch-time crowd. One woman said, “A mother of five? Guess there’s nothing else to do in Alaska besides making babies.” There were other snide comments about her hairstyle, eyeglass frames, and lifelong NRA membership.

The loudest snicker, of course, came from the Obama camp: “Today John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

I was not surprised. After all, during the primary season, Obama himself complained that small-town Americans embraced guns and religion out of bitterness. Obama and his inner circle make these gaffes because they suffer from the same disease as their party for half a century – elitism.

The Democratic Party that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by social engineers who embraced Adlai Stevenson because he was, in Michael Barone’s judgment, “the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class culture – the prototype of the liberal Democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting.”

Stevenson’s elitism and contempt for the blue-collar worker engendered a new generation of politicians whose roots were grounded not in the “fragmented local politics which Franklin Roosevelt and his contemporaries had grown up with,” but instead in the “centralized national politics which had grown up with the large central government produced by Roosevelt’s New Deal and wartime politics.”

Blue-collar workers, mostly Catholics, fled the party. Mario Cuomo explained that they “felt alienated by a new Democratic Party which [they] thought neither understood nor related to [them].”

The new generation of Democratic elites may underestimate the power Governor Palin brings to the Republican ticket – particularly among blue-collar, pro-life Catholics in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio, and among the pro-gun western states. One person who does not is the last woman nominated for vice president, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro.

The daughter of immigrant blue-collar parents, Ferraro was born in the small town of Newburgh, New York, moved to the Bronx at eight after her father died, and worked her way through college and law school. When nominated for vice president, she was forty-eight, the mother of three, and married twenty-four years.

Was Ferraro’s political resume a little thin as nominee? Yes. Previously, she had worked for her cousin, Nick Ferraro, as an Assistant D.A. and served only three terms in Congress representing “Archie Bunker” neighborhoods.

This did not stop Mondale from praising Ferraro as highly qualified. In fact, he boasted that “she had a strong family life, deep religious convictions, and working Americans of average income will find her a vice president who knows them and will fight for them.” The New York Times editorialized:

Where is it written that only senators are qualified to become President?…Or where is it written that mere representatives aren’t qualified, like Geraldine Ferraro of Queens?…Where is it written that governors and mayors, like Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, are too local, too provincial?…Presidential candidates have always chosen their running mates for reasons of practical demography, not idealized democracy…. What a splendid system, we say to ourselves, that takes little-known men, tests them in high office and permits them to grow into statesmen. . . . Why shouldn’t a little-known woman have the same opportunity to grow?. . . .the indispensable credential for a Woman Who is the same as for a Man Who – one who helps the ticket.

For once, I side with The Times.

There is, however, one big difference: Palin is pro-life while Ferraro was pro-abortion. Yet in a New York Post interview, Ferraro not only brushed off the claim that Palin was unqualified, but “reject[ed] the idea that all the so-called Hillary voters would be repelled by Palin’s staunch anti-abortion views. These voters know the Senate will have a veto-proof Democratic majority, so that lessens the potency of that issue.”

During this campaign, Senator Obama must be vigilant that he, his loquacious running mate, and his arrogant handlers do not make condescending remarks about Palin’s abilities. An off-comment can easily backfire and highlight Obama’s own scant experience and qualifications for high elective office.

I have no doubt Palin is up to the job. When State Senator Obama was, only few years ago, dodging sensitive votes in the Illinois Legislature to avoid political setbacks, Sarah Palin, unconcerned with the political fallout, was fearlessly taking down Alaska’s corrupt Republican establishment and Big Oil. And when Obama was sitting around fashionable Hyde Park in Chicago, philosophizing with the unrepentant Weather terrorist, William Ayers, Palin was in the Alaskan outdoors working with her hands, hunting bear and catching salmon to feed her family.

Palin will succeed because unlike the vainglorious Obama, she has true grit.

Average Americans will realize, as my father and his buddies did at Pete’s Tavern, that she is that rarity in politics – a real person who’s made it into office. John McCain hit a home run this selection of a representative of the silent majority, Sarah Palin.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.