I spent last weekend on Guanajuato Way in the middle of the Artisans Market, which is almost as much about socializing as buying and selling. For two days every conversation began with the exact same question: what in the world do you make of Sarah Palin? Hers was an instantly recognized name that no one had ever heard three days earlier. That's what getting tapped for a presidential ticket will do for you.
Mostly I listened. My mind's been slow to wrap around the fact that Republican leaders think that if something happens to their main man, a short-term Alaska governor who was mayor of a town one-fourth the size of Ashland should be President of the United States. It seems almost gullible to believe it, as if that zany prankster John McCain will step up any time and say, "Fooled ya! See, I'm just a fun guy who you'd like to have a beer with, too!"
The Palin selection feels like a Google search. I think they entered a list of key-phrases in that skinny box at the top of the page, each one a trait they want in their VP:
youthful vibrancy hunter/NRA champion reassure religious right female (a crumb to Hillary hold-outs) congenial (aka, who you'd like to have a root beer with) attractively gutsy
And up came Sarah Palin.
Here's the key phrase they left out: "plausibly qualified to run the country." If you're someone who likes every single thing about this woman, I want you to go to the mirror and watch yourself say, slowly and clearly: "President Sarah Palin — yes, she is ready." Whatever your politics, did you keep a straight face? Be honest.
The GOP made a couple of stabs at dealing with this pesky detail. First they reminded us that Alaska's governor commands the state's National Guard. That failed to impress. Okay, then, how about pointing out (and I am not making this up — Cindy McCain did) that since Alaska is the geographically closest state to Russia, its governor would naturally have a keen grasp of one of our major international challenges? I could be wrong, but I don't think that quite cleared the bar either.
Which leaves the technique favored by both parties when faced with a dangerous question they can't answer: change the subject. Three days after learning that Sarah Palin existed, we began hearing stories about her personal life that sound like a season's plot line for "All My Children."
What bad news for the Republicans, said the media. Really? Since the Pregnant Daughter saga broke, I've heard everything about Bristol the Pistol and fiancé Levi Johnston and Sarah's noble decision to carry to term her Down Syndrome baby (or, gossipy whispers went, grand-baby) and almost nothing at all about Governor Palin's qualifications to run America. And I like to think I pay attention to the serious-minded end of the media spectrum.
That doesn't sound to me like bad news for the GOP. I don't know if McCain's people leaked this soap opera or not (though if they vetted her half as thoroughly as they claim, they knew it would have to come out). But if you wanted to knock the debate over qualifications off America's radar screen, could you find a better strategy?
It gets shrewder that that, because of Governor Palin's terrific communication skills. Though I write this hours before her big convention speech, I know how she'll come off: poised, funny, gracious, courageous under fire and very, very charming. In weeks to come, look for a thread of serious questions and unserious tidbits about Sarah Palin, followed by irate reaction from Republican leaders about the liberal media's smear campaign and hints that the Obama camp is behind these scurvy attacks. Then the nominee will step up to yet another podium with yet another winning smile and another few remarks about her love for this great country and her confidence that its great people have the goodness to reject this mean-spirited mudslinging. You could write the speech yourself.
With each of these gracious appearances, the question of Sarah Palin's bottom-line qualifications will recede a little more. Some who started out shaking their heads at the selection, particularly those attuned to the way women are dismissed and patronized, might just say "All I know at this point is that I really like this woman. She's getting a raw deal, and if there were something I could do about it — but wait a minute; there is"¦"
It's easy lifting for me to criticize the Palin selection, because she's on the opposite side of issues I care about. Those of you sharing some of her views have a harder task. Please: If you failed the straight-face test above, think hard before filling in that oval with No. 2 pencil. As a nation we've already tried picking presidents as we would beer-drinking buddies. How's it been working for us?
Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at www.unafraidthebook.com).