September 16, 2008
It has taken me a couple of weeks but I think I’ve finally gotten handle on why Sarah Palin’s bravado Republican convention speech was such a smash among conservatives: After nearly eight years of watching President George W. Bush curl up in the fetal position each time he was savaged by the angry left, it was positively invigorating to see a conservative Republican finally fight back—and with wit and charm. Palin was a throwback to Ronald Reagan, with that unique ability to deliver a memorable dig with a smile. She went on offense, entertainingly and engagingly so, and it was fun to watch.
At the same, Palin made herself prey for the secular left. They don’t like her. They despise her simply for what she represents. Her nice life of happy choices angers them. They are eager to destroy her. This gives the hard left pleasure, albeit only momentarily, as their restless hearts seek another void.
She will witness their hatred when she turns on the TV, picks up a newspaper, or walks by a magazine rack. What’s the solution to deal with their revulsion? Ignore it. It is what it is; always the same.
Turn off the TV: As George W. Bush told reporters in the early weeks of the invasion of Iraq: “I don’t have time to sit around watching TV.” Smart.
Don’t read the New York Times, which harbors the worst of prejudices: a concealed one. At least conservative talk-radio is open about its biases.
The one politician who had this ability more than any I’ve encountered was Ronald Reagan—a truly liberating quality for a conservative Republican. I could point to numerous examples, but here’s one of my favorites, shared by the late columnist Rowland Evans.
Evans was having lunch with Reagan in 1987, six years into his presidency, a milestone by which the previous five presidents had been defeated, resigned in disgrace, refused to consider reelection, or assassinated. Somehow, Reagan was shining through, making it look easy, and was enormously popular. Evans, a tough old newsman, was in awe. He looked Reagan in the eye and said, “You know, Mr. President, I’ve known you for more than twenty years. I first met you in 1966, and the amazing thing is that you don’t look any older now than you did back then. How do you do it?”
In response, Reagan offered a parable:
Let me explain it this way. Let me tell you the story of the two psychiatrists—the old psychiatrist and the young psychiatrist—who had a practice together. They’d come into their office every day just bubbling with enthusiasm, always happy, upbeat, smiling, and chipper. Then they’d go into their separate suites and have patients come in and lie on the couch all day and talk about the woes in their lives. At 6:00 p.m. they’d come out and the young psychiatrist would be devastated, wiped out by the day, with a stomachache, and just miserable. The old psychiatrist would be just as chipper and smiling and upbeat as he was when he went in that morning. This went on for a number of months.
Finally one day they came out at 6:00 p.m., the young psychiatrist devastated as usual, and the old psychiatrist just as happy and smiling as he was when went in. The young psychiatrist stopped him and said, “I don’t understand it. We do the same thing every day, and I leave wiped out by hearing patients all day, and you come out after patients have been streaming in and out of your office just as upbeat as ever. How do you do it?” The old psychiatrist paused a minute and said, “I never listen.”
Critics on the left would have uncharitably seized upon Reagan’s explanation as evidence of their demeaning assertion that he did not pay attention during White House meetings. Reagan, of course, did not intend the story that way, and would be unfazed by their insulting interpretation—which is precisely the point.
The parable contains a secret to Reagan’s content: When he was dubbed a warmonger and an idiot, blamed for everything from homelessness to AIDS, when it was asserted that he was engaging in an arms build-up not to draw the Soviets to the negotiating table but to launch nuclear war, when protestors staged “die-ins” dressed as mock coffins outside the White House, Reagan simply ignored them. When they screamed, he never listened.
Such accusations drove other men crazy. One president driven over the edge by the left’s rage was Richard Nixon. “Others may hate you,” said Nixon in his White House farewell, “but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Nixon let the hate of his enemies consume him, and then they won.
I sense that Sarah Palin understands these things.
Her virtues are destined to bring out the vices in her opponents. She loves, and they envy how she loves. She chooses life, and they assail her choice.
Her temperance and fortitude tempts their pride. Her faith, hope, and charity, inspires their disbelief, despair, and disdain. Her happiness fuels their anger.
Often, maintaining sanity and surviving means simply ignoring the haters. That’s where Ronald Reagan was before he stepped foot in the White House. And that’s a good place for a conservative Republican like Sarah Palin.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include God and Ronald Reagan (HarperCollins, 2004), The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007), and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007).