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“In America any boy may become President and I suppose it’s just one of the risks he takes.” So said Adlai Stevenson in 1952—rather ironically, given his failure, two times, to be nearly as well liked as Ike. Stevenson, a renowned crusader for the cause of American liberalism (if there is such a thing), may also have dated himself with this quip; this year, a half-century after it was made, not one but two “girls” have drawn within practical inches of the Oval Office.
But the governor’s point remains clear: Ours is an exceptional nation, for our commitment to—or pretension of—classless meritocracy, representative democracy in its purest, fairest form, and an undying optimism about our shared future.
Today, one of the women Stevenson infelicitously dismissed with his remark has nevertheless taken up his banner, in a very different way. Governor Sarah Palin has made much ado over her belief in America’s place atop a moral-idealistic hierarchy since her nomination.
Not one week ago, at the vice-presidential debate in St. Louis, Palin responded to a question about her Achilles heel with a defense of her worldview, which “says that America is a nation of exceptionalism, and we are to be a shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here.”
This may not matter almost 400 years after the fact, but Governor and founding Bay Stater John Winthrop might have had a case in intellectual property court here. Moreover, Palin’s mega-sentence is generally riddled with contradiction. Winthrop’s city on a hill, at least from the abstraction of the Arbella, wasn’t a place for maverickly disdain for critics outside its borders; indeed, it was envisaged as a collectivized moral paragon, a fragile, idealized community that must hold itself to its own high standards if it hopes to preserve its figurative elevation.
To be fair, Palin reined in her nationalism, if not her loopy syntax, immediately afterward; she continued, “We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights.” So, yes, she understands that a bitter incongruity exists between American ideals and American realities—that, oftentimes, the poor are rendered mute and immobile under the drone of helicopters and the careerist caution of legislators.
But still I wonder. Since that debate, Palin has gone on the attack. For example, though Obama calls America “the greatest country in the world” so often you wonder if there’s a string coming out of his back, Palin told donors in Colorado: “Our opponent…is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” Beyond Palin’s remark being a profound distortion of the senator’s relationship with former Weather Underground Organization member William Ayers, it’s also a direct contradiction of her days-old concession to the exact same point: America is exceptional, but it’s not perfect.
Whether Palin has changed her mind about the perfection or imperfection of the country she (sort of) lives in, or whether her debate-night modesty was merely a concession to centrists to be abandoned before a friendly throng, cases like this make you wonder about the prospective vice president’s intellectual honesty. To be fair, those throngs have continued to eat her red meat, gladly; more recently, when Palin quoted Obama out of context questioning the activities of American troops in Afghanistan, a few piped up with cries of “treason”; elsewhere, the response “kill him!” could audibly be heard. The moment the debate ended, the governor gave up totally on asking questions about how America could be, planted her feet, and antagonized anyone who doesn’t like how it already is.
According to political legend, when he was told by a supporter that “every thinking man in America” (they were big on the gender bias back then) was behind him, Adlai Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.” Again, sadly, he was right—this time, twice over; he lost to Ike by a landslide, and, fifty years later, White House aspirants are still appealing, with success, to blinkered self-righteousness and total thoughtlessness.
James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.
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