Tuesday, December 23, 2008

John O'Sullivan on Gov. Palin vs. Mrs. Thatcher

We're still making up our minds about Gov. Sarah Palin. Not, mind you, about whether she was a brilliant choice on McCain's part (she was,) whether she would have made a good VP and been capable of stepping into the Oval Office "on Day One" (she would have been at least as ready as many previous VP's and VP candidates in this century,) or whether she made McCain's uphill climb a harder one (on the contrary, she single-handedly got him back in the game, gave him a shot at winning until the economy went into melt-down, and probably saved him from a loss of 1964 Goldwater proportions.)

The question, rather, is whether Gov. Palin is the right person to spearhead the GOP's comeback 4 to 8 years from now. We must confess that since we are so steeped in the conservative movement's not inconsiderable intellectual heritage, our main question about Gov. Palin is whether she has the intellectual chops to make it happen. We unreservedly reject the condescending, haughty put-downs directed at her from her betters (after all, we heard the same sort of panicked attacks about Goldwater, Reagan, Thatcher, and Gingrich during their ascendencies, all of whom had intellectual chops far exceeding what they were then given credit for.)

But saying that the caricatures of elitist snobs (or of that even lower form of life, the elitist snob manqué) are grossly unfair is not quite the same thing as saying that Gov. Palin should be handed the Goldwater/Reagan/Thatcher/Gingrich mantle, post-haste.

In this vein, one of our favorite conservative writers, John O'Sullivan, has written a nice piece in which he comes to her defense:

Inevitably, Lloyd Bentsen's famous put-down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate is resurrected, such as by Paul Waugh (in the London Evening Standard) and Marie Cocco (in the Washington Post): "Newsflash! Governor, You're No Maggie Thatcher," sneered Mr. Waugh. Added Ms. Coco, "now we know Sarah Palin is no Margaret Thatcher -- and no Dan Quayle either!"

Jolly, rib-tickling stuff. But, as it happens, I know Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher is a friend of mine. And as a matter of fact, Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin have a great deal in common.

O'Sullivan, of course, is one of American conservatism's British expatriates, and brings a depth of knowledge about Thatcher that the casual commentator lacks. He was a special adviser to Thatcher while she was PM, and he retained a close relationship with her after her time as Conservative Leader in Britain, specifically in working with her to found the New Atlantic Initiative.

As befits one of the best minds in the conservative movement today (O'Sullivan is no intellectual slouch, having been WFB's handpicked successor as editor of National Review, and writing regularly for high and mid-brow periodicals like the New Criterion, the London Spectator, Policy Review, and the usual suspects like the NYT and Washington Post) -- O'Sullivan's appraisal is one that comes with eyes wide open, as they say. He notes many of the differences in the political education of these two ladies.

But he also notes some of the similarities, and illustrates them with various (now) humorous stories about Thatcher's "ineptitude" in her days before she became the Iron Lady of Britain -- no longer misunderestimated by either friend or foe. A couple of samples:

Mrs. Thatcher's most senior position until then had been education secretary in the government of Edward Heath where, as she conceded in her memoirs, she lacked real executive power. Her political influence within that government was so small that it took 17 months for her to get an interview with him. Even then, a considerate civil servant assured Heath that others would be present to make the meeting less "boring."

...she became almost as "controversial" as Sarah Palin. Heath, for example, made it plain privately that he would not serve under her. And Sir Ian Gilmour, an intellectual leader of the Tory "wets," privately dismissed her as a "Daily Telegraph woman." There is no precise equivalent in American English, but "narrow, repressed suburbanite" catches the sense.

Mrs. Thatcher attracted such abuse for two reasons. First, she was seen by the chattering classes as representing a blend of provincial conservative values and market economics -- Middle England as it has come to be called -- against their own metropolitan liberalism.

We learn that Mrs. Thatcher got some help -- including coaching from Sir Lawrence Olivier in preparing for the regular face-to-face verbal sparring at which British opposition leaders must excel, unless they are resigned to leading only from the opposition bench forever. And again, O'Sullivan makes it clear that one only knows what someone is made of after they have met the tests put before them -- Thatcher met hers and became a legend, while Palin's tests lie ahead and may be failed. But he does have this to say about one of the many similarities he sees between these two women:

But she shares with Mrs. Thatcher a very rare charisma. As Ronnie Millar, the latter's speechwriter and a successful playwright, used to say in theatrical tones: She may be depressed, ill-dressed and having a bad hair day, but when the curtain rises, out onto the stage she steps looking like a billion dollars. That's the mark of a star, dear boy. They rise to the big occasions.

Mrs. Palin had four big occasions in the late, doomed Republican campaign: her introduction by John McCain in Ohio, her speech at the GOP convention, her vice-presidential debate with Sen. Joe Biden, and her appearance on Saturday Night Live. With minimal preparation, she rose to all four of them. That's the mark of star.

If conservative intellectuals, Republican operatives and McCain "handlers" can't see it, then so much the worse for them.


Ed Kemmick said...

I'll admit I haven't read Sullivan's whole piece, so I have to ask: Does he ever address the appalling ineptitude of the unscripted Sarah Palin? If Sullivan were to reveal to me that Maggie Thatcher, at the beginning of her political career, could not put together a single complete sentence during a television interview, evinced absolutely no knowledge of world affairs and apparently never consulted a daily newspaper, I would say, "Wow, maybe there really is some hidden potential in Sarah Palin."

If not, I'll just put this down as another instance of a notable conservative closing his eyes, clicking his heels and dreaming of glorious things.

Anonymous said...

We saw O'Sullivan on the Bill Maher show earlier this year with Brian Schweitzer. Schweitzer, as usual, had memorized his talking points and was full of himself and at some point accused Republicans of only being capable of repeating talking points.

O'Sullivan quickly pointed out that that was exactly what Schweitzer had been doing throughout the show (he had indeed been nothing more than repeating standard Democratic platitudes). O'Sullivan also showed that he was very adept at thinking on his feet as the situation required -- and that he was a much more agile thinker than Schweitzer. I could hardly believe it, but I almost felt sorry for Schweitzer. And O'Sullivan wasn't trying to show Schweitzer up or anything.

Montana Headlines said...

Ed, O'Sullivan does discuss how poorly Thatcher came across in PM Questions -- which is fairly unscripted. Granted, what he notes is that she sounded shrill, while her counterpart was smooth -- and one can of course say very intelligent and informed things while still sounding shrill.

I think that as much as anything, O'Sullivan is making a point that has been made repeatedly here on MH -- namely that about the most predictable rap that is made against conservative politicians is that there isn't anything between their ears. Maggie Thatcher was absolutely not an exception to that rule, even though she is now routinely cited by Clintonistas as justification for tough and competent woman-power.

The fact that it wasn't true when it was made against Thatcher doesn't mean that it isn't true when it comes to Palin. But what it does mean is that there are few things as predictable as having the media and the oh-so-intelligent folks on the left (is there a difference most of the time?) portray a rising conservative star in the most unflattering light when it comes to intelligence and the ability to communicate in a way that sounds intelligent.

You might consider excusing us for ignoring what is probably well-intentioned advice when we conservatives are told that we should jettison just about any popular conservative politician because of a purported lack of brains. If we hadn't heard about pretty much every one of our politicians who actually won and got things done while they were in their ascendency (as opposed to the predictable grudging respect accorded in retrospect to any conservative who trounced the opposition,) we might be more inclined to listen.

Anonymous -- you are right that O'Sullivan has a mental and verbal agility that I'm sure the good guv wasn't capable of matching. But then, O'Sullivan actually is one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, so that isn't perhaps a very fair head-to-head comparison.

He also is someone who isn't inclined to repeating talking points of any kind (one of the reasons I suspect he didn't stay on as editor at National Review, which became increasingly talking-point-ridden throughout the 1990's.) Which makes me more likely to pay attention to what he has to say. He's no Bill Kristol or Bill Bennett -- and that, for the record, is very much a compliment.

One point I question is whether O'Sullivan meant to put the governor in his intellectual place. I believe that O'Sullivan is a gentleman of the old-school -- i.e. someone who would never give offense to another man unintentionally.

Anonymous said...

It was quite a while ago, but I don't recall O'Sullivan trying to show up Schweitzer. That was one thing interesting about the exchange on the Maher show.

Schweitzer was the one who was came across as pompous, while O'Sullivan was, as you say, the gentleman. O'Sullivan might have gotten a little annoyed with Schweitzer, as he did gently point out that the governor was using talking points -- not long after Schweitzer had assailed Republicans for always using talking points.

But Schweitzer came across as the far more partisan participant, I thought. I had the impression Maher was more impressed with with O'Sullivan than with Schweitzer, even though he's much more aligned politically with the governor.

Part of what made O'Sullivan effective was that he was low key; he just let his arguments do the talking. Sometimes Schweitzer tries to bluff & bluster his way through situations, but here he couldn't.