Sunday, September 14, 2008

President Palin, Pt 2: Why Volvos?

Since this is the age of confessional biography, here's mine.

I was born and raised in Washington, DC. (No, not the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, but the actual District of Columbia.) My father worked for the government; my mother taught philosophy at at French school. My parents owned a Volvo. I went to Sidwell Friends (yes, that's Chelsea Clinton's alma mater) for junior high and high school, and then to Yale. My sister went to Harvard. After getting a PhD in economics I was for a time a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School. While I was there my wife and I owned a Volvo. Now I'm on the payroll of the Commonwealth of Virginia, teaching at a School of Public Policy. I live, again in Washington, DC. My sister is a doctor and lives in San Francisco.

So, any surprise that I'm not a fan of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska?

Do pigs wear lipstick?

Oh, maybe I got that one wrong. Too much book learning, I guess. (I did spend a summer in 1984 working on fishing boats in Alaska. I wonder, does that qualify me to be Mayor of Wasilla?)

I digress. This post is really about Volvos.

Now my parents owned a Volvo. My wife and I owned a Volvo. Therefore, the political culture of the day indicates that I am a "liberal". That is because, as everyone knows, "liberals" drive Volvos.

Let's leave aside what "liberal" and "conservative" mean for the time being. In another post I'll argue that both terms are meaningless and that there are only three categories of successful politician: The rational, the inciting, and the corrupt.

For now, let's focus on the Volvo. What is the Volvo's defining characteristic? Is it that it is exciting? No that's the Porsche. Is it imposing? No, that's the Bentley. Is it patriotic? No. Just, no.

There is one defining characteristic of the Volvo: It is safe. The cars my parents and I owned were Volvo 240 series. A very safe car. At the time I traded in our 240 six years ago, do you know how many fatalitites on American roads had involved that model of vehicle: zero. None.

Such remarkable safety performance does raise a question: Is it the cars that are safe, or the drivers? Sure, the Volvo 240 was well built car. But maybe it was the drivers, as much as the vehicles, who contributed to the vehicle's outstanding record of safety. Maybe the car selected for owners who were unlikely to take risks.

Risks like driving drunk on the Beltway.

Risks like leaning out the window to shoot at stop signs.

Risks like voting for George W. Bush.

And what, pray tell was risky about George W. Bush? Let us hope that the punch line here is that voting for George Bush was risky just because, unlike the author of this blog post, George W. didn't have the benefit of a Yale education. That unlike the unrepentant Washington elitist before you, W. wasn't privy to the corrupt and sordid world inside the Beltway.

Oh, sorry. Lost myself again. Forgot that W. did go to Yale. Forgot that W. was the son of a President of the United States.

So, what made W. risky, if he had the fancy degree and the blue-blood connections? And what, ulitimately, made W. a failure?

What made W. risky, and what has made him a failure, is his absolute convinction. Convinction without reflection. Conviction without reason. Conviction without question. Conviction without blinking. Conviction without thinking.

The charicature of a bio that my parents sacrificed greatly to allow me to develop has provided me with enough exposure to educational elites and political elites to know neither has much to do with intellectual elites.

In my own, personal view, fitnees to govern is not a function of impressive brand names on a resume. It is not a function of political experience or connections.

It is a function of thoughtfulness. It is a function of openness to other viewpoints. It is a function, above all, of humility.

And if you're wondering what this all has to do with potential President Palin, here's the answer:

GIBSON: Governor, let me start by asking you a question that I asked John McCain about you, and it is really the central question. Can you look the country in the eye and say "I have the experience and I have the ability to be not just vice president, but perhaps president of
the United States of America?"

PALIN: I do, Charlie, and on January 20, when John McCain and I are sworn in, if we are so privileged to be elected to serve this country, will be ready. I'm ready.

GIBSON: And you didn't say to yourself, "Am I experienced enough? Am I ready? Do I know enough about international affairs? Do I -- will I feel comfortable enough on the national stage to do this?"

PALIN: I didn't hesitate, no.

GIBSON: Didn't that take some hubris?

PALIN: I -- I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink. So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.

(Full text here.)

A friend of mine writes to me. "I think the Dems are making a mistake by focusing so much attention on Palin. No matter how horrible a pick she may turn out to be, this election should be focused on Obama vs. McCain... In the end, Palin is going to be only a footnote."

I hope he's right. I'm not so sure.

(By the way, I traded in the Volvo for a Mercedes. More on that in another future post.)

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