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Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)
Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)

Rex Murphy

Obama inspires; Palin connects Add to ...

There are two great political speakers in the America today. Sarah Palin is the other one.

Barack Obama's speaking skills are his signature talent. He's a platform performer, a speechmaker in the great tradition, a kind of teleprompter Cicero. The campaign to become President owed more to Mr. Obama's oratorical mastery than to any other element. His speech on race in America, necessitated by revelations of the ugly thoughts and sentiments of his hometown preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was the most important event of his campaign. If it had failed, his candidacy would have been doomed. Under pressure - the great test of the real speechmaker - he delivered.

The other great speech of the U.S. campaign season was Sarah Palin's on receiving the vice-presidential slot on the McCain ticket. This was a speech delivered under even greater pressures than that of Mr. Obama. John McCain's choice of Ms. Palin had been early and widely criticized, and in some quarters ferociously reviled. She had never really been under the national spotlight before. The entire media were focused on her with an intensity almost unseen in the annals of vice-presidential politics. If she'd been just "okay," or messed up, John McCain's campaign was over. It was the highest of high-stakes gambles.

Did she deliver? She soared. She was the very acme of self-confidence and ease. She mixed a natural charm with a mischievous edge of sarcasm toward her opponents - even daring the unthinkable by pinging The One himself. It was her "first serve" on the national stage and she delivered an ace. The backwoods hick knocked it out of the hall that night - not only did she not sink the McCain campaign, she gave it the only real vitality and spark that gloomy, tight, fussy little campaign had from start to finish.

Her speech, in fact, was the rhetorical equivalent of Mr. Obama's crucial one. They do not as speakers, it is obvious, share the same idiom. Mr. Obama is utterly composed, deliberate down to gesture and word, very conscious that he is a "figure" on a stage. Mr. Obama "bestows" himself on an audience. Ms. Palin has none of that. She will never speak in front of faux Greek columns. She walks on the stage much the same way she'd go into a gas station. But she's shrewd in her choice of themes, has a marvellous feel for her audience, and a confidence that will never be confused with arrogance.

They are, in the way fate or the mysteries of politics sometimes offers such things, curiously equivalent or parallel figures, polar opposites but equals. Ms. Palin connects: Mr. Obama inspires. She's a latter-day frontier figure, impulsive, instinctive; he's pure urban cool, highly deliberate, even detached. Both have real charisma.

It will make Obama fans perspire to hear this, but Ms. Palin has a more forceful bond with her supporters than he with his. Mr. Obama offers a kind of self-flattery to his worshippers. They feel exalted that they have the intelligence or sensibility to see how remarkable their man is. But he remains remote. Ms. Palin works close up. She offers those much invoked, but actually neglected figures, "the ordinary Joe or Josephine," a real sense that she does represent them.

Ms. Palin is in the hurricane's eye again with the publication of Going Rogue. The Associated Press assigned no fewer than 11 reporters to "fact check" Ms. Palin's memoir, a concentration of scrutiny AP would never presume to exert over the man who's actually in the White House. Elements of the press mock and scorn her with a fury that is near inexplicable. Rather fewer extol her gifts. But pro or con, the media cannot get enough of her.

Professional feminists despise her, view her with unhinged contempt, as witness this classic assessment of academic Wendy Doniger: "Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman." Dutiful "progressives," otherwise windsocks of sensitivity and nuance, revile her in the crudest, most extravagant terms. The intensity of their hostility, its unbridledness and dreadful tastelessness (the speculations on the birth of her Downs syndrome child) is an unwitting measure of her power.

A truly dumb and witless person would not have the demure columnist David Brooks hissing dismissively, angrily in fact, on a Sunday morning talk show that Sarah Palin "is a joke." Poor Mr. Brooks gets intellectual hives just thinking about her. Empty vessels do not inspire such venom and fury.

Ms. Palin is a real and evolving element in the great story of American politics. She is the "other half" of the Obama moment, and she may be in the ascendant. Mr. Obama is losing his lustre, his appeal is dimming, at the very moment the Alaskan outsider is staking her claim. Those who call her a joke are expressing an anxious hope not offering a rational description.

Ms. Palin has rare gifts and stamina enough to give them play. She is the second most outstanding figure on the great stage of American politics.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup .

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