The Palin Portfolio, Phase Two: Damage Control: or, The Clash of Civilizations comes home

Hurricanes are not the only forces of nature causing damage these days. Gustav and Ike may have ripped the roofs off many buildings, but hurricane Sarah has devastated what was left of the mainstream media's pretensions toward even-handedness. The curious thing about the Palin Payload is that (so far) the most conspicuous damage has been inflicted not directly by Governor Palin but, jujitsu-like, by the media's efforts to destroy her. It's been a spectacle of auto-immolation precipitated by the media's confrontation with a phenomenon whose nature they misunderstood and whose power they gravely underestimated. That phenomenon may be personified by Sarah Palin. But really it is only incidentally related to the Governor of Alaska. At bottom, the phenomenon is synonymous with traditional middle American values. What we have witnessed is the not-so-silent majority recoiling in disdain and loathing from the media's transparently partisan efforts to discredit someone about whom they knew exactly nothing except 1) she was John McCain's pick for VP (why had't they been informed?) and 2) she seemed unaccountably popular (they would fix that).

It is breathtaking to inspect the wreckage strewn about the landscape as the intended character assassination rebounded in a tsunami (if I may alter meteorological metaphors) of distrust, revulsion, and repudiation. But time waits for no one, and yesterday's implosion yields to today's mopping up operation. There will be plenty of time for finger pointing and recrimination--especially if (as I suspect) the wreckage upsets the coronation of St. Obama in November.

But today the media is confronted with a massive operation in damage control. Naturally, an operation so large and multifarious will proceed on many levels and is the work of many hands. Perhaps the most amusing effort I have seen so far--though I hasten to note that the humor is entirely unintended--has been perpetrated by Clark Hoyt, the "public editor" or "ombudsman" at The New York Times. Mr. Hoyt's thankless task is to ride majestically into certain "controversies" wearing the Mantle of Journalistic Integrity and Impartiality. Which "controversies"? Why, the ones precipitated by the Times's left-wing, politically correct bias, or--more precisely--those that attract too much public notice.

Really, Mr. Hoyt's job is simply an extension, a forward bulwark, of the pseudo "objectivity" that (among other failings) has made the Times such an object of derision for the last decade or more. How does it work? Something like this:

On the one hand, Ladies and Gentlemen, there have been accusations against The New York Times, and, looking into the accusations, I judge that there has been some small error on the part of our reporters. The dress was blue, not green, and we should have checked. But, on the other hand, in the larger sense, seen from the perspective of our high journalistic calling, our duty to inform and enlighten the public on issues of great national moment, our dedication to a free press for a free people, etc., etc.,--seen, I say, from that mountain redoubt, I, Clark Hoyt, Public Editor of The New York Times, do hereby absolve my employers of all but three venial sins. Say two Hail Marys and all will be forgiven.

That is a paraphrase. Is it an exaggeration? You judge. Here's Mr. Hoyt's piece apologizing--no, explaining and attempting to justify--the Times's extraordinary outpouring of venom on Sarah Palin in the days following the announcement that she was to be John McCain's running mate. Some correspondents, Mr. Hoyt reported sadly, said the Times appeared to be on a "witch hunt." But no, no:

In our instant-news and celebrity-obsessed culture, Palin went from Sarah Who to conservative rock star in less than a week. In less than two months, she could be elected vice president to serve under the oldest president, at 72, ever elected to a first term, and one with a history of recurring melanoma. Intense, independent scrutiny by The Times and the rest of the news media of Palin’s background, character and record was inevitable and right.

And, yes, it was inevitable, and right to a more limited degree, that her family would come under the spotlight, too. As Bill Keller, The Times’s executive editor, said, “Senator McCain presented Mrs. Palin’s experience as a mother as one of her qualifications for the job.”

It was also predictable that party professionals would object vigorously to stories that might undermine the image they were trying to project of Palin as an accomplished governor successfully juggling her “hockey mom” family duties while fighting corruption in Alaska.

A lot could be said about these three paragraphs. One might begin with "Sarah Who," pause at "intense, independent scrutiny" (i.e., "intense" in the sense of prying and scurrilous, "independent" in the sense Harold Rosenberg intended with his phrase "the herd of independent minds"), and make pit stops to consider the proferred justification of involving Palin's family. One could then conclude with the truly risible suggestion that it is predominantly "party professionals" who would object to the Times Treatment. Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger & Co. don't care two hoots about the opinion of "party professionals," at least not if they're from the Republican Party. What they care about is public outrage and damage to the brand, of which there was plenty.

What makes Mr. Hoyt's performance amusing, when regarded as a specimen of rhetorical self-exculpation, is the same thing that makes it appear as a piece of "disingenuous hypocrisy" (as the friend who alerted me to its presence described it) when regarded as a piece of journalism: its deployment of irrelevant details, pseudo-qualifications, and nitpicking side issues to obfuscate the truth. The emotional weather of the piece is one of slightly snooty, adamantly self-righteous concern:

So was The Times story wrong, as the McCain camp said? It did contain one error. It said that one potentially embarrassing revelation about Palin was her membership for two years in the Alaskan Independence Party, which favors a vote on whether the state should secede. The assertion was based on an announcement by the party’s chairwoman, Lynette Clark, which The Times failed to tell readers. That was a mistake. “We should have attributed it,” Bumiller said. The next day, Clark said she had been wrong. It turns out that Palin’s husband, Todd, had belonged to the party for a time, and she had addressed its annual convention. The Times corrected the error in two follow-up stories.

But the main thrust of its reporting on the vetting process appears to be holding up. The Post said the next day that a lengthy in-person background interview of Palin by the head of McCain’s vetting team did not happen until the day before she was chosen. It also acknowledged that it had been incorrect when it reported that the F.B.I. had checked out Palin. In her home state, the Anchorage Daily News reported that it had found only one person who was asked anything about the governor before McCain selected her. That was the attorney representing her in an investigation of whether she had abused her power in office.

“We stand by our reporting,” said Richard Stevenson, the editor in charge of Times election coverage.

Well, then, if an editor of the Times stands by the story, 'nuff said, right?

Mr. Hoyt ends his piece with this emetic masterpiece:

The drip-drip-drip of these stories seems like partisanship to Palin’s partisans. But they fill out the picture of who she is, and they represent a free press doing its job, investigating a candidate who might one day be the leader of the Free World.

How many buttons can you push in two sentences? Mr. Hoyt did well: 1) the patient-investigator-slow-but-dogged-like-the-tortoise trope--as if, you know, the Times's coverage had been not the "drip-drip-drip" of sedulous reporting but a prime example example of shoot-from-the-hip hysterical journalist overreach; 2) the flag of partisanship, which it's our job to expose; 3) the free press; 4) simple diligence; 4) the aura of the Presidency; 5) leader Oh my God of the Free World!

Mr. Hoyt certainly earned his weekly pay packet with this story. Then why did my friend describe it (rightly, in my view) as an example of "disingenuous hypocrisy"? Two points:

First, the elephant in the room is Obama. Mr. Hoyt is going to need a longish ladder to get off the high horse he mounted in "The Scrutiny of Sarah Palin." But where were the four front page stories, where was Maureen Dowd with her repellent references to breast pumps and go-go boots, where was the smarmy Frank Rich, when it came to "scrutinizing" Barack Hussein Obama? (Or John Edwards for that matter? Mr. Hoyt sniffs that "I took the Times to task for not trying to report the Edwards story until he acknowledged his affair, but once Edwards came forward, the Times put it on the front page and continued digging." So what? Every other newspaper in the country did, too. And trust the Times to "continue digging" after the mine is exhausted and the story has become politically irrelevant.)

One lesson--hardly a new lesson, but still worth mentioning--is that Democratic candidates get one sort of treatment from the Times, Republicans get quite another sort of treatment. Sarah Palin supposedly lacks the experience to be Vice-President; but what experience does Obama have to be President? What has he done? What legislation has he sponsored? What executive experience has he had? What does he stand for--beyond, I mean, the calculated political expediency that will advance his career? Where, for example, does he stand on the war in Iraq and the Surge: adamantly opposed--until it became too expensive politically, at which point he declared that the Surge succeeded beyond his "wildest dreams." Where does he stand on offshore drilling? On taxes? On Russia's invasion of Georgia? On an nuclear Iran? On Israel? A foolish consistency, said Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. But what about the sober consistency of principled statesmanship?

A few days ago, I posted some reflections on Bill Buckley's famous declaration that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than the two thousand members of the Harvard faculty. The second, and perhaps deeper, point to be made about Mr. Hoyt's piece is that it perfectly epitomizes the "Harvard" Bill Buckley wittily disparaged in that mot. From that perspective, it certainly is not a good thing that Sarah Palin is a conservative Republican. But her real offense--the thing that has precipitated such visceral hatred of her among the Left--lies not in her party affiliation or even her particular policy prescriptions. No, the Left hates her for what she is, and I do not mean only things like the fact that she is pro-life, pro-hunting, and in favor of off-shore drilling. Those are merely the external coefficients of a view of life and the world that the Times, that "Harvard," can barely understand, but that to the extent that they do understand they regard with a mixture of contempt and loathing. "Harvard," I noted in the post mentioned above, and the "progressive" consensus it represents

is sophisticated about everything except its own naïveté. It champions cultural relativism–absolutely. It is suspicious when someone shows up peddling “the truth,” especially about moral matters; but it embraces its perspective on the world as inarguable. According to the gospel of “Harvard,” all right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) people agree with the various positions set forth in the catechism of liberalism. To champion the various dogmas set forth in that catechism, says “Harvard,” is simply to exhibit one’s contact with reality. To dissent from them is to exhibit one’s ignorance, bad faith, or malevolence.

And that, as we've seen this last week or so, is how "Harvard," a.k.a., liberal elite opinion, regards Sarah Palin: partly parochial, partly malevolent. She is not part of the enlightened confraternity from which we draw our leaders: our political leaders, our newspapers editors, our college professors and presidents, our socialites and news readers.

But here's a question: why is someone like Joe Biden better equipped to be Vice President than Sarah Palin? Because he is a lawyer? (On the whole lawyer issue, see Victor Davis Hanson's thoughtful reflections on why we should quit nominating lawyers.) Because he went to elite schools? Because he has spent his entire adult life in Washington, lips sewn fast to the public teat? Because he, like Barack Obama, represent more faithfully the politically correct, multicultural orthodoxy that defines established opinion today? Do we really believe the country is better served by people who embody the values of "Harvard," i.e., the values of the liberal consensus, than by people who represent an older, harder, less metrosexual view of the world--the values, e.g., of a Teddy Roosevelt as opposed to those of a Woodrow Wilson? Maureen Dowd thought she was being hilarious when, in a piece called "Vice in Go-Go Boots," she imagined Sarah Palin confronting Vladimir Putin:

the former beauty queen shaking out her pinned-up hair, taking off her glasses, slipping on ruby red peep-toe platform heels that reveal a pink French-style pedicure, and facing down Vladimir Putin in an island in the Bering Strait. Putting away her breast pump, she points her rifle and informs him frostily that she has some expertise in Russia because it’s close to Alaska. “Back off, Commie dude,” she says. “I’m a much better shot than Cheney.”

Is that funny? I think it is disgusting, snobbish, and sexist to boot. In 1996, the political philosopher Samuel Huntington wrote a prescient book called The Clash of Civilizations, which foretold (among other things) the coming struggle between Western civilization and the Muslim world. The reaction to the nomination of Sarah Palin shows that the sort of clash Huntington described can take place within a civilization as well as between civilizations. "The clash between the multiculturalists and the defenders of Western civilization and the American Creed," Huntington wrote, is the "real clash within the American segment of Western civilization."

My friend Mark Steyn is fond of quoting the historian Arnold Toynbee's observation that civilizations die from suicide, not murder. Civilizational suicide is rarely a dramatic, one-act performance; generally, it proceeds by a protracted enervation and enfeeblement. I believe that a lot of people in America have an inkling that such enervation and enfeeblement is well advanced in American society and, indeed, that is a major reason they are so enthusiastic about Sarah Palin. She represents the promise of civilizational renewal, not by the extension of socialism and the embrace of the effete values of multiculturalism--what we might call the Europeanization of America--but by fostering more robust, more elemental values. Of course, the same things about Sarah Palin that have sparked admiration and enthusiasm in one part of the American public have sparked contempt, dread, and outrage in the segment epitomized by The New York Times and what Bill Buckley summed up in the name "Harvard." They want America to become more like Europe, they endorse the values of multiculturalism and political correctness.

There is, said Adam Smith, a "deal of ruin in a nation." Many people, I suspect, believe that the legacy of multiculturalism and political correctness--the legacy, in a word, of 1960s radicalism--has inflicted grievous ruin upon this country. One party embraces that ruin as our destiny. John McCain and Sarah Palin reject it as tantamount to moral betrayal. This election really is shaping up as a clash of civilizations. No wonder its skirmishes have been so bitter. They are likely to become even more heated as more and more people awaken to the nature of the choice that confronts us.