Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Sarah Palin shocker

Wasn't it impressive how Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain was able to keep the selection of his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, 44, a secret until an hour before the official announcement last Friday?

Sen. Barack Obama had earlier done a good job of keeping the Democratic vice-presidential choice, Sen. Joseph Biden, a surprise.

It's reassuring that there are still some politicians who can keep a secret.

Less classy, however, was how Palin diverted attention - when she was introduced to the media - from the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, by having the girl hold the governor's new baby. More on this later.

OBAMA'S CHOICE of Biden left me unmoved. Obama should have swallowed his pride and begged Hillary to be his running mate. She would have jumped at the chance - and old Bill could have been shut up with an appointment to the Supreme Court. An Obama-Clinton ticket would have been pretty unbeatable.

Biden first captured my attention in the 1970s because of the publicity he got over a series of partially successful hair transplants - let's just say it's an issue I track.

Since 1988, Biden's been a perennial presidential candidate. He roots for Israel when we're under attack, but probably won't support Israel's quest for safer boundaries. He's long opposed the presence of Jews in Judea and Samaria. And it's unlikely he'll be leading the charge against keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Still, in picking another liberal senator, one with a strong Washington and foreign policy resume, Obama has done himself no harm.

WHEN YOU apply the "above all, do not harm" yardstick to McCain's selection, the results are far less straightforward. Sarah Palin's trajectory runs from her PTA to the Wasilla city council and mayoralty - Wasilla is 50 km. north of Anchorage - to, in December 2006, the governor's mansion.

John McCain reportedly met Palin just once, six months ago, before summoning her last week and offering her the job. She must have made a good first impression.

There's little question that in selecting Palin, McCain was focusing more on his electoral strategy than on what might happen after inauguration day. In that sense he reminds me of Ariel Sharon, who assumed he'd be around to manage politico-security affairs for years to come.

Politically, the choice of Palin seemed smart - at least until the story about Bristol's pregnancy broke.

McCain is distrusted by social conservatives. Palin's credentials as a reform-minded, pro-life, pro-gun, family values, frum Christian - someone who didn't hesitate to tax big oil or challenge the country-club wing of the Republican Party - certainly help shore up this important Republican constituency, which might otherwise have stayed home on election day.

Selecting what everyone assumed was a super-mom with charm - a mother of five, the youngest a Down syndrome child - has its appeal. Her main concerns, like those of most Americans, are domestic. If Biden tries to embarrass her in a debate by asking about the capital of Tajikistan (Dushanbe), he'll only make himself look smug. Most regular Americans don't know it, either.

At first the only controversy surrounding Palin involved her attempt to get her former brother-in-law fired from his job as a state trooper. She's said her sister's ex threatened to kill their father.

But Bristol's pregnancy generates lots of questions: How can we believe that McCain knew about the 17-year-old's condition yet still selected Palin? My bet is he didn't know. And if he didn't, what does that tell you about the people McCain turns to for advice?

On the other hand, more than a third of births in America are to unmarried mothers. In places like New York City, a majority are out of wedlock. It's not the pregnancy that's such a big deal, it's the sense that Palin is a hypocrite. But maybe that's not the way Christians will see it. After all, didn't Jesus teach: "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone..."

PALIN'S LACK of experience outside Alaska is very troubling. But I'm hoping that if he wins, McCain, 72, is going to be around long enough to mentor her.

In truth, as the Democrats correctly pointed out when Obama was being criticized for lack of experience, the Bush II administration was top-heavy with seasoned national security types: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney - and they managed to lead America into a pointless war in Iraq.

Speaking of Iraq, let's pray that McCain will do an about-face, decide that the government of Iraq is "capable of governing itself" and honor Baghdad's request for a troop withdrawal by 2011. He'd also be wise to rethink his commitment to keep US troops on the ground until the first Jeffersonian democracy in the Arab world takes shape.

But what if Palin does have to become the commander-in-chief sooner rather than later?

The Obama campaign is dismissive: "John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." I'm not going to make believe they don't have a point. But for me, the even bigger question is whether Palin has the temperament, judgment and wisdom to be president. She doesn't have much executive experience - Alaska has only 700,000 people. Obama, of course, has no executive experience at all.

It's OK with me if she believes God created the world, and that maybe the threat of global warming is not quite as dire as Al Gore would have us believe. I'm more concerned about her character. Can she keep an open mind, can she analyze situations on a case-by-case basis - or will theology and ideology predetermine her decisions? Can she - for example - accept that abortion is a personal choice and should not be criminalized?

As for the Jewish angle, I'm relieved that McCain passed over two Jewish politicians - Congressman Eric Cantor and Senator Joe Lieberman. He also passed over a Mormon, and you don't see them getting their knickers in a twist. I live in a country where practically the entire government is Jewish - and, let me tell you, I sometimes long for a sympathetic Alaskan or Mormon to set matters right.

Something also tells me that Palin will be a powerful voice for making the US less dependent on Arab oil.

Am I bothered that Palin - like a majority of US Jews - has never been to Israel?

If only visiting here inoculated politicians from leaning on Israel to make dangerous concessions. Sometimes it does work out that way. But while Jimmy Carter could draw a topographical map of Israel blindfold, he's become an apologist for Arab intransigence. Bill Clinton was no stranger here, and yet he helped bring about Oslo.

Still, it's too bad that Palin was not on the radar of any major pro-Israel group, and that we know little about her attitude toward Israel, except that she has a tiny Israeli flag in her office.

OF COURSE, Israel isn't at the top of the agenda for most US Jews either. If it were, they'd be pressing Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin to oppose an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines; to support the inclusion of strategic settlement blocs in any final peace deal. US Jews would be demanding that the candidates denounce Mahmoud Abbas every time he openly demands the "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel proper; and they'd want the candidates to say whether they consider the Jerusalem neighborhoods of East Talpiot, Pisgat Ze'ev and Har Homa to be part of Israel's capital or not.

PALIN reportedly wore a "Pat Buchanan in 2000" button. She claims she really didn't endorse the affable anti-Semite. Whatever. I doubt she has a clue about Buchanan's attitude toward Jews. No one has suggested that her brief encounter with Buchanan is akin to Obama's long-term relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Like I said, most Jews won't be voting on the basis of what's best for Israel. And the last time I checked, Moses hadn't returned to say that Judaism and the liberalism of West Side Manhattan were one and the same. So it's outrageous to discount Palin because, in the words of one Jewish political operative quoted in the Post, "There is no Jew outside of Alaska who has had a relationship with her."

Excuse me? We're going to demonize Palin because she doesn't know from knishes?

Palin's husband, Todd, is part-Eskimo. I'd venture to say that, outside Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, few liberal Jews have met many Eskimos. That's probably because for all these folks' cosmopolitan pretenses, if you don't shop at Zabar's, you don't count. Talk about being parochial.

THE PALIN pregnancy business erupted as I was writing this column - the latest twist in an extraordinary campaign. It's shaping up to be the most fascinating presidential race since I moved to Israel - and stopped voting in US elections.

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