If screen credits appear at the end of the 2008 presidential election, I’d guess they’ll tell us the story was created by Kurt Vonnegut and Harriet Beecher Stowe, with a screenplay by Thomas Pynchon and Tom Stoppard, as directed by the Robert Altman of Nashville.
This election season has offered us a dizzying set of intertwined, overlapping and contradictory storylines. And just when it all seemed to be cohering, John McCain tossed us Sarah Palin, a stock 19th century melodramatic ingénue. I guess McCain hopes that Palin will take to the post-post-modern stage and turn his foes and critics into so many Snidely Whiplashes.
Popular cultural narratives are like riverbeds. The flow of our experience usually follows them. We understand what we do and think, what happens to us, and what happens in the world through our shared stories. Sometimes experience overflows the riverbanks. Occasionally, during powerful social, economic or political upheavals, unprecedented experience re-routes the rivers.
This year, the riverbeds of some of our shared stories are being unsettled by unprecedented snowmelt floods and little earthquakes all at once. Maybe the old riverways will survive. Maybe there’ll be a new course.
The candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton rocked the traditional storylines in obvious ways, challenging stereotypes and opening narrative possibilities historically foreclosed to women and people of color.
John McCain wants to be seen as the good-hearted bad boy, his eyes twinkling even at his obvious cons. He wants to be Robert Preston’s Harold Hill in The Music Man. Instead, he has become much more like River City’s doddering, cranky mayor, George Shinn (portrayed brilliantly in the film by character actor Paul Ford).
Now McCain complicates it all by picking Palin, who looks and acts like River City librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones). But Palin was the mayor, not the librarian, of Wasilla, Alaska. She’s a female George Shinn who appears to have done quite well in the grand tradition of petty local politics determined wholly by gossipy feuds. As the Meredith Wilson Music Man lyric puts it, "Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more."
When many Democrats and pundits found themselves stumped about exactly how to respond to McCain’s choice of Palin, part of the reason was the contradictions in Palin’s character. Here was a conservative, traditionalist ingénue promising to complete the heroic journey of Hillary Clinton and other feminists who have spent decades challenging misogynistic American melodrama.
We can’t mock her as an ingénue because she’s posing as a hero. We can’t mock her faux heroics because she’s an innocent ingénue. What do to?
Conservatives have long had a better handle on the power of cultural narratives in politics. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that cultural narratives are conservative. They exist to conserve old values and habits in the public memory. Creating new stories is harder work.
It’s also the case that progressives often dismiss the power of story as secondary to the power of universal, transcendent reason. Political scientist Elisabeth Anker puts the lie to that in her insightful essay, (pdf) "Villains, Victims and Heroes: Melodrama, Media, and September."
So what do we do with Palin the hero/ingénue?
First, we should recall that the stock character from melodrama has also been a favorite target of satire and comedy. Democrats will be afraid of this tack, guessing that Palin will play the victim well and win votes with sympathy. Maybe, maybe not.
In any case, it’s worth remembering that for every Mary Pickford in The Foundling there’s a Betty Boop in Blunderland. It’s the role of ingénue that’s mocked, not Betty or Mary.
Still, McCain’s failure to vet Palin is probably the more fruitful path. He is the presidential candidate, after all, and his public stumbling and bumbling have already cost him support. Botching this key early decision is a major blunder, one worthy of River City’s Mayor Shinn.
Seen in this light, Palin becomes McCain’s victim, not ours, not Obama’s or Joe Biden’s or the cruel media’s.
McCain kidnapped an earnest if quirky and woefully inexperienced local gal for his own evil purposes without concern for her welfare – or the welfare of the nation he wants to lead.
That sort of betrayal is also a traditional American melodramatic storyline, easily understood, easily communicated. McCain and his henchmen are the Snidelies, Palin the hapless victim. Dismay at her unique unqualified-ness and sympathy for her plight turn into antagonism toward McCain. This doesn’t mean that Palin’s ethical troubles and odd "Northern Exposure"-like behavior is off limits. It just means McCain shouldn’t have dragged her into the spotlight to be humiliated as half of his comedy team, Moose-hunter and Squirrel.
It’s curtains for McCain. If we play it right.
But if any time is given to Palin to become a new America’s Sweetheart, a true ingénue immune to criticism, attacks will be worse than fruitless. They will backfire. A grace period will confer just that, grace. Then McCain will get credit as her nurturer, not torturer. It can happen here.
We can’t forget that there’s power in the plot line. Timing is everything. We can’t wait until chapter 2.