Roger L. Simon

The New York Times, Sarah Palin, and the 'Gravitas Gap'

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy cover profile of Sarah Palin coming out Sunday, and already available online, titled “The Palin Network.” While its principal takeaway appears to be Palin’s admission she is seriously mulling a presidential run — an acknowledgment she has evidently also repeated to Barbara Walters on ABC — that was not what interested me in the article.  That Palin is at least considering a candidacy at this point should surprise no one.  The article by Robert Draper was much more fascinating as a snapshot of where the New York Times is at this moment regarding the former Alaska governor.

Now we can take it as a given that the powers that be on 40th Street would prefer China’s Hu Jintao — possibly even Hugo Chavez or Ahmadinejad — for U.S. president to Sarah Palin.  Nevertheless, they have a problem.  Is it better to tear down Palin unmercifully now, as was done by most of the MSM earlier, or to give her a pass for the time being, so that she might actually get nominated to be branded later, when it counts, as a dangerous extremist, not to mention an illiterate moron?

This is a tricky problem indeed for the “objective journalist.”  For the most part, Draper does an elegant job of splitting the difference, noting on the one hand that no one could any longer “underestimate” Sarah Palin, while only a few paragraphs before reminding us the dullard used the word “refudiate,” instead of “repudiate,” in a Twitter posting.  (Could that simply have been a typo?  Draper — who undoubtedly never makes them — was mum on the subject.)

But how does Draper finally resolve the conundrum?  Since the advent of the Internet, we have been teaching each other how to read articles in papers like the Times.  In think pieces — now often called “news analysis” — six or eight experts are consulted on a subject.  Quotes from these experts are then ordered somehow mysteriously to endorse the author’s point in the last paragraph. (Similar techniques are used for populist “man-on-the-street” stories.)

Magazine articles are more complex and take more twists and turns.  But the true concerns always emerge at the end, as if solving a riddle for us innocent readers. After thousands of words, and within a paltry few sentences of his conclusion, Draper finally has his prey in his cross hairs:

Palin became testy when I asked her about the books I heard she had been reading. “I’ve been reading since I was a little girl,” she snapped. “And my mom is standing 15 feet away from me, and I should put her on the phone with you right now so she can tell you. That’s what happens when you grow up in a house full of teachers — you read; and I always have. Just because — and,” she continued, though in a less blistering tone, “I don’t want to come across sounding caustic or annoyed by this issue: because of one roll-of-the-eye answer to a question I gave, I’m still dealing with this,” she said, referring to her interview with Katie Couric. “There’s nothing different today than there was in the last 43 years of my life since I first started reading. I continue to read all that I can get my hands on — and reading biographies of, yes, Thatcher for instance, and of course Reagan and the John Adams letters, and I’m just thinking of a couple that are on my bedside, I go back to C.S. Lewis for inspiration, there’s such a variety, because books have always been important in my life.” She went on: “I’m reading [the conservative radio host] Mark Levin’s book; I’ll get ahold of Glenn Beck’s new book — and now because I’m opening up,” she finished warily, “I’m afraid I’m going to get reporters saying, Oh, she only reads books by Glenn Beck.”

I explained to Palin that in my view, at least, this line of inquiry wasn’t gratuitous — that questions did in fact linger about her “gravitas gap.”

Questions linger… Ah, poor Sarah.  So insecure about her intellect.  Ah, the “gravitas gap.” What we are we to do?

Let’s leave aside the snide quality of the writing (his and mine), the absurdity that Katie Couric could be the arbitrator of anything intellectual, and even that Draper is simply rehearsing the tired nostrum that Democrats are more educated than Babbit-like Republicans (when the Times itself finally admitted than Bush had better grades than Kerry at Yale) and ask something simple and important that rarely gets asked: What the Hell difference does this make anyway?

Indeed, that is not easy to answer.

Harry Truman, the man so many seem to harken back to these days as a great president, was not known for spending his evenings reading Proust. (Yes, his daughter wrote mysteries and, yes, he played mediocre piano.  But you know what I mean.)  Obama — hailed as the greatest intellectual since Heraclitus — has made a botch of things.  Does Palin have sufficient education and experience to be president?  Compared to others who have held the office, realistically she does.  But if she is nominated, look for the Times to keep raising the phony issue of her intellectual preparedness, just as they did with Bush and Reagan.

Much more important — although only delved into in passing by Draper — is what Palin stands for. She is quoted in the article as saying that all the Republicans competing for the nomination will have substantially the same views.  Therefore, it is their characters that voters in primaries will ultimately be judging.

To some degree this is true, but I know of at least one case that it isn’t.  I had the pleasure of having coffee the other day at the Chateau Marmont (!) with Gary Johnson, the former two-term New Mexico governor who it seems will be running for president. That Johnson was hanging around the Marmont — the former bailiwick of John Belushi — should give you at least some indication that this is no Old Guard Republican or, for that matter, social conservative.  He’s a true libertarian, favoring very low taxes, entrepreneurship and privatization, ending the war on drugs, and taking the government out of the marriage issue.  And, thankfully, he’s a little sturdier on foreign affairs than Ron Paul.

I’m sorry — I didn’t ask him what books he’s been reading.  But I’m glad he’s running.  He should shake things up a bit.