Political oratory is a dying art form that few are good at and even fewer master. But since her arrival on the national stage in 2008, Sarah Palin has proven to be a practitioner of a very special brand of oratory that has its roots in the plain speaking prairie populists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Fighting established interests, damning the elites who they felt were responsible for the terrible rural poverty of the time, prairie populism swept through the heartland, roiling politics and giving a sense of empowerment to people as they battled the east coast bankers and monopolies.
Palin, who gave a rousing, enthusiastically received speech at the NRA convention in Houston yesterday, has what all good orators have; the ability to capture the moment. There are several elements that make a good orator but one of them is being blessed with the gift of being able to connect in a visceral way with their audience. Palin captures the moment by capturing her audience, speaking to them on a plane that other politicians can’t reach. She holds them in the palm of her hand so that they feel one with her — a bond she obviously shares.
Liberals complain she feeds the resentments and petty biases of her audience. But they miss the point. Palin articulates what ails America largely because all other politicians tip-toe around what the American people are truly concerned about. And she does it in a way that everyone can understand and feel at a gut level.
Republicans have been complaining about President Obama and the Democrats using the Newtown tragedy in a shameless, exploitative way to serve their gun control agenda. But Palin took a different tack:
Sarah Palin said Friday that the elite media would never let a Republican president get away with what Barack Obama has done in his push for new gun laws.
The former Alaska governor recalled that the national press “tore apart” George W. Bush for using “fleeting images” from Sept. 11, 2001, during his 2004 reelection campaign.
At the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, Palin slammed Obama for flying the grieving parents of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Air Force One and then “making them backdrops” at rallies.
“That same media is now the reliable poodle-skirted cheerleader for the president that writes the book on exploiting tragedy,” she said, wearing a T-shirt that said “women hunt.”
Palin insisted that all Americans felt “despair, sadness and absolute anger” when they saw what happened in Connecticut. She said everyone should care more about those getting gunned down every single day on the streets of places like Chicago and New York City, but that shouldn’t guide public policy.
“Now, emotion is a good and a necessary thing. But we have politicians exploiting emotion for their own agenda,” she said. “We have well-meaning Americans who are desperate to respond.
Note that she clearly separates the shameless politicians who exploit the victims from “well meaning Americans” who respond emotionally. Rather than complaining about “low information voters,” she invites those Americans to share her contempt for Obama and the Democrats.
“We’re fighting the good fight,” Palin said near the end of a 12-minute speech. “The Washington establishment sneers at you, and you don’t give up. The lamestream media just plain doesn’t get you, and you don’t give up. You don’t retreat.”
Palin took a shot at New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, always a bogeyman at these gatherings. At her last big public event – the Conservative Political Action Conference in March – she sipped a Big Gulp from the podium to mock his ban on the sale of the large sodas. She told the NRA crowd that Bloomberg may next try to ban public displays of tobacco products.
Then she pulled out a container of snuff.
“I tell ya, don’t make me do it,” she joked. “It’s funny because [my husband] Todd’s been looking for this all morning.”
Of the people and for the people. That’s straight out of the prairie populist handbook, down to using the rich, nanny Mayor Bloomberg as a foil. And, of course, the can of snuff is the perfect prop to demonstrate her bona fides as a Woman of the People, standing up to the statists and monied interests.
I don’t like Sarah Palin’s politics much at all. But you can admire her oratorical abilities and respect the hold she has on ordinary people. In more than 40 years of following politics, I’ve seen only a handful who can match her. Hubert Humphrey, John Connally, Ronald Reagan, Mario Cuomo, and a younger Barack Obama exuded that same presence on stage, commanding attention, connecting emotionally, and lifting their audience out of themselves while sharing their vision for America.
What Governor Palin will do with this great gift will interest a lot of people before 2016 is done.