Friday, August 24, 2007

Steve Maloney and David Shribman on "Political Narratives"

As those of us in the "Draft Palin" effort write our "narrative" (see the Shribman article below) one issue we need to deal with is the notion that the presidential nominee has total say in who his running mate will be. Frankly, I've gone through 50-plus years of Republican nominees operating in that way, and it's not a pretty sight.

We're the Party that nominated twice the following: Richard Nixon (resigned later as President), Spiro Agnew (resigned because of a bribery scandal), and Dan Quayle (uncontested winner of "deer-in-the-headlights" look). We also nominated Dick Cheney, who had no interest in running for President.

But don't the nominees take a lot of time in determining who their running-mate will be? Not exactly. In 1968, how did Richard Nixon nominated Spiro T. Agnew, a little-known Governor of Maryland? Reportedly, Nixon allowed his political adversary, Nelson Rockefeller, to make the choice. In his Machiavellian way, Rockefeller apparently knew about Agnew's corruption in Maryland, and figured he would eventually have to drop out, leaving the vice-presidential role open for . . . Nelson Rockefeller.

What about Nixon's second term, when he was under pressure to dump the profoundly unimpressive Agnew? Why didn't he choose someone else?

When John Ehrlichman, the President's counsel and assistant, asked him why he kept Agnew on the ticket in the 1972 election, Nixon replied that “No assassin in his right mind would kill me."

On October 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned from the vice-presidency as a result of charges of tax evasion, bribery, and money laundering. Apparently, he had taken bribes in excess of $250,000. Did Nixon know Agnew had been on the take? If he didn't, he was in the minority.

How does this related to Sarah Palin's narrative? Obviously, Sarah Palin -- a scrupulously honest person who has fought corruption throughout her political career -- is no Spiro T. Agnew.

Those of us in the Palin Movement don't want the presidential nominee to choose anyone roughly resembling Agnew -- or, for that matter, Nixon. Eisenhower didn't "need" Nixon to win two landslide elections. Nixon didn't "need" Agnew to win 49 states against George McGovern in 1972. But they nominated them anyway.

Adam Brickley, a 20-year-old college student from Colorado, was the individual who started writing the narrative for Sarah. Adam researched the possible candidates and came to the conclusion that Sarah Palin, governor of a state that's small in population and far away from the "lower-48," was exactly what the GOP needed.

Frankly, Adam (and others in the movement) have given a great deal more thought to the vice-presidency than either Eisenhower or Nixon did. In so many cases over the past 50-plus years the presidential nominee would have done a better job picking a name out of s hat.

Sarah's narrative deals with her absolute honesty and strong religious faith. It encompasses her role as a faithful wife (who married her high-school sweetheart, Todd). It focuses on her willingness to take on -- and overcome -- corruption in her own Party. It highlights her electability, illustrated by her defeating both an incumbent Republican governor and a former Democratic governor. It recognizes her willingness to take on the big oil companies and their minions, who've generally had their way in Alaska politics.

Knowledgable national media figures like Fred Barnes, Les Kinsolving, Ted Koenniger, Dimitri Vassilaros, and SJ Reidhead are looking at Sarah and see her as a great national candidate. They're helping produce a narrative -- a story -- that happens to be true. That narrative should make Sarah an irresistible choice for the Republican ticket in 2008.

The presidency is a unique position. There's no other role -- in government or business -- remotely like it. The people who excel as President, individuals like Washington, Adams, Lincoln, and Reagan, are individuals who possess great character and manifest real decency toward those they govern. They are quick learners and great listeners. That sounds very much like the narrative of a job description for a certain governor of Alaska.

Even St. Paul wrote part of the narrative 2,000 years ago. He said, "For all have sinned, all have fallen short of the Glory of God." What he meant was that when it comes to human beings, no one is perfect. However, Sarah Palin certainly seems to come close.

Stephen R. Maloney
National Coordination Team Palin 4 VP

Political candidates and their supporters are busily engaged in helping write/shape "narratives" (stories) that advance one or more candidates. If those narratives are done very well, they remain memorable long after the demise of the candidate. For example, every American knows the story about George Washington (supposedly) cutting down the cherry tree, a narrative that end with him saying, "I cannot tell a lie." We also know the story about "Honest Abe," walking miles to return a penny to someone. Of course, a candidate's opponents are also writing their own version, a much less favorable one. I'll be posting more over the next three days (through the weekend) about the "narrative" Sarah's supporters are writing for her -- an extension of the one she's "writing" for herself. At the same time, Sarah's political enemies -- of whom she has a handful -- are working to construct an unkinder tale. (See my previous comments on the odious Sheila Toomey of the Anchorage Daily News.) The following is a column by David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who wrote a fine piece on political "narratives."
(August 19, 2007)

Narratives of the nattering classes, by David Shribman, executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [In Britain, the "chattering classes" refer to people who make their livings "chattering" in the media. The word "nattering" reminds us of Spiro T. Agnew's condemnation of the media through calling them "nattering nabobs of negativism."]

Presidential candidates are busy defining themselves and their opponents. Hillary Rodham Clinton is rigid, cautious and steely private. Barack Obama is dangerously inexperienced. John Edwards is a narcissistic hypocrite. Joseph R. Biden Jr. can't express a thought in less than 25 minutes. Christopher J. Dodd is making sense but nobody's paying attention.

But, then again, Rudolph W. Giuliani is hot-tempered and not particularly solicitous of civil liberties. Mitt Romney is a flip-flopping opportunist. John S. McCain III is a doomed defender of the Iraq war. Sam Brownback is a hopeless religious conservative. Mike Huckabee, too, except that he's lost a lot of weight, has a wicked sense of humor and, because of his second-place finish in the recent (utterly meaningless) Iowa Straw Poll, might not be the dead-man-walking everyone thought he was. [Note from Steve to my Huckabee friends: Shribman is NOT saying the Ames Straw Poll is meaningless, only that Huckabee's opponents will try to portray it as such.]

That's the 2008 race in a nutshell, and if the candidates (and the press) aren't careful, that's about all that's going to be written, thought and said about the whole thing. This isn't the first time an entire presidential campaign has been distilled down to the simplistic.

Remember John F. Kerry? He was a phony Vietnam War hero who couldn't make up his mind about the Iraq war. And Bob Dole? An old guy with a World War II injury stuck in a World War II reverie with a World War II view of life.

The greatest danger any of the 2008 candidates face is to be caught in a narrative not their own, to have every misstep and every remark forced into an established storyline that brooks no change. Mitt Romney's father, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, is the classic prisoner of a narrative. Mention his name to even the most sophisticated member of the political class and, in a peculiarly cruel version of word association, the phrase "brainwashed on Vietnam'' will spill from the lips. George Romney's 1968 campaign was sunk when he used the word "brainwashed'' in connection with the war.

Right now the narrative machine is at work on Sen. Obama, who has the bad luck to be young (thus the "inexperienced'' notion) and a bit impulsive (thus the "irresponsible'' label, tossed by Sen. Clinton, who added, for good measure, the words "frankly naive''). This episode provides an unusually stark case study of how a candidate's narrative is built by a rival and by the press despite the efforts of the candidate, his staff and his advertising advisers to construct an entirely different narrative.

The narrative that Mr. Obama and his handlers are trying to nurture is one of a deeply committed one-time community organizer whose brilliance took him to the editorship of the Harvard Law Review and whose own background (father from Kenya, mother from Kansas) is a metaphor for American diversity and an eloquent expression of American hope. For a while, Mr. Obama was doing quite well with that, a theme that is to be underlined (along with a faintly negative exposition on another American trait, ambition) in a forthcoming biography of the Illinois Democrat by Chicago Tribune writer David Mendell.

But Mr. Obama, like every other presidential contender, doesn't get to write his own narrative, though the amount of money these candidates throw into television advertising and Web sites must make them wonder why they can't prevail in this image battle.

Just as the candidates are devoting hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, into burnishing their stories, their rivals and the reporters who cover politics are writing narratives of their own. The problem, for the candidates, is that their foes and commentators are fitting everything they do into the rogue narrative, not the official narrative.

Here's how it's rolled out in the Obama case. In a July 23 debate, the senator, in response to a question, said he'd be willing to meet some of America's foreign-policy and security foes such as the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Sen. Clinton said she would make no such pledge and the political establishment, a Greek chorus all its own, roared: Whoa there, Sen. Obama is being a bit too eager.

Then Mr. Obama said he might consider using military strikes on al-Qaida positions in Pakistan. Sen. Clinton's reaction: "You can think big, but remember you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it has consequences around the world.'

'In these episodes Sen. Obama no doubt wanted to show his creativity, his independence from the starched shirts and striped pants of established diplomatic procedure and his willingness to take on tough national-security issues. But Sen. Clinton wanted to make sure the very people who pay attention to early political maneuvering saw that Sen. Obama was inexperienced, maybe naive, certainly a little too quick off the draw, in rhetoric if not in actual military action.

Sen. Obama tried to define himself. Sen. Clinton tried to define Sen. Obama.In this case, as in so many, the candidate who tried to take the offensive has been put on the defensive by a candidate who sensed an opening, or an opportunity, or a chance to transform the characteristic that one candidate thought was a virtue into a liability that will dog him for the rest of the campaign. Advantage: Sen. Clinton.

I mention all this because I have sinned myself -- the job of a political correspondent is to commit this sin of creating a narrative from time to time, just not to make a bloody habit of it. Creating a narrative is how humans make sense of a complex, confusing world.

But being a prisoner of a narrative is how humans surrender observation and thought for the sake of simplicity. Sen. Obama needs to break out of his narrative. We need to watch to see if he can.

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