NEW YORK—Until four years ago, no one had heard of our current Democratic nominee. "Who is Barack Obama?" asked CBS News after he was picked to deliver the keynote address at the Dems' 2004 confab. "Not exactly a household name." Four years later, that speech remains his biggest achievement. No landmark legislation bears his name. His claim to fame is his gift of gab.
But Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin's newly minted fame makes Obama, saddled with a resume so thin he pads it with the entry "community organizer," look like an elder statesman. Governor of one of the nation's least populous states for a mere two years and the ex-mayor of a municipality that's home to 7,000 souls, Palin is now positioned to be a proverbial heartbeat away from the ability to order ICBMs fired at Russia. (On Inauguration Day, McCain, a cancer survivor and hardly the picture of health, will be two years away from the average life expectancy for an American male.)
At least Obama went to law school. Along with a solid background in history, knowledge of the law is essential for a president.
Palin is a total unknown. A McCain adviser admits to The New York Times: "The campaign's polling on Mr. McCain's potential running mates was inconclusive on the selection of Ms. Palin—virtually no one had heard of her."
Welcome to the year of the nobody, when people you've never heard of can blog or reality-show or, in the case of the political class, schmooze their way to fame and fortune. My favorite nobody of 2008 was a kid named Efraim Diveroli, the fast-talking 22-year-old president of a two-man arms trading outfit by the name of AEY, Inc. (Speaking of thin resumes, his business partner was a masseur by trade.)
On the strength of a charming smile and the lowest bid, the Pentagon awarded this joker a $300-million federal contract to supply munitions to the U.S. puppet government in Afghanistan. Three hundred million dollars.
"By 2005, when Mr. Diveroli became AEY's president at age 19, the company was bidding across a spectrum of government agencies and providing paramilitary equipment—weapons, helmets, ballistic vests, bomb suits, batteries and chargers for X-ray machines—for American aid to Pakistan, Bolivia and elsewhere," reported The Times. Alas, all good things end. Diveroli's firm sluffed off a bunch of repackaged, outdated and substandard Chinese-made shells from Albania to the Afghans, who knew enough about war materiel to complain to their American masters.
Lest I make myself misunderstood, I'm not claiming that experience is a reliable indicator of performance. The members of George W. Bush's cabinet had collectively spent more than a century serving in federal government. That didn't prevent them from bankrupting the treasury or standing by passively as a hurricane destroyed New Orleans.
Nor am I impressed by fancy credentials. As many financial services workers can attest, few employees are more poorly prepared for real-world economics than those with MBAs. Journalism schools produce stenographers, not journalists.
Resume entries aside, history shows that certain personality traits—especially intelligence and open-mindedness—make for better presidents. Also helpful are a variety of life experiences, such as familiarity with other countries and cultures and overcoming tough times.
By most measures, Palin is a weird choice. Like Geena Davis in the 2005 TV series Commander in Chief, she could wake up one morning to find that McCain has shuffled off to the great POW camp in the sky. We would probably be in trouble.
As far as we know, Palin faced her biggest personal challenge a year ago. According to official accounts, she learned that she was pregnant with a child with Down Syndrome. She decided to keep him. It has to be heart-breaking. Still, as a right-wing opponent of abortion rights, however, the decision not to abort had to have been simple to make. Also on the knocked-up front, she and McCain actively attempted to cover up the fact that her 17-year-old daughter has a bun in the oven. Icky, icky. Zero integrity points for sucking up to the Christianist Right.
Palin's teen daughter intends to carry the child to term—a decision one hopes she was able to make free of pressure from her ambitious mother.
More worrisome is an incurious intellect that dovetails regrettably with Palin's past as a beauty queen. "Ms. Palin appears to have traveled very little outside the United States," reported The Times. "In July 2007, she had to get a passport before she visited members of the Alaska National Guard stationed in Kuwait." Yet Anchorage is a major hub for flights to Japan, Korea and China. She never felt like checking out Canada?
Asked about rumors the Alaska governor was being considered as McCain's running mate, she told CNBC: "As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I'm used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we're trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the U.S., before I can even start addressing that question."
"Working real hard?" Doesn't the University of Idaho require its graduates to learn English? Does she know that she isn't running for VP of Alaska? Or that the VP presides over the Senate? With the nation facing enormous economic, political and military challenges, do we need another numbnut in the White House?
At least Palin knows something many other Republicans don't. "We are a nation at war," she told Business Week, "and in many [ways] the reasons for war are fights over energy sources." Palin has grammar trouble. But she knows why we're in Iraq.
Two of Palin's opponents in the 2006 Alaska governor's race were baffled at Palin's lack of substance. "She wouldn't have articulated one coherent policy, and people would just be fawning all over her," Republican-Independent Andrew Halcro told The Times. "[Democratic candidate Tony Knowles] and I looked at each other and it was, like, this isn't about policy or Alaska issues, this is about people's most basic instincts: 'I like you, and you make me feel good.'"
God bless America. We're going to need all the help we can get.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.