Sarah’s Pompom Palaver
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: October 4, 2008
The New York Times
I had hoped I was finally done with acting as an interpreter for politicians whose relationship with the English language was tumultuous.
There’s W.’s gummy grammar, of course, like the classic, “Is our children learning?” And covering the first Bush White House required doing simultaneous translation for a president who never met a personal pronoun he liked or a wacky non sequitur he could resist.
Poppy Bush drew comparisons to Warren G. Harding, whose prose reminded H. L. Mencken of “a string of wet sponges. ... It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” When Harding died, E. E. Cummings lamented, “The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead.”
Being mush-mouthed helped give the patrician Bushes the common touch. As Alistair Cooke observed, “Americans seem to be more comfortable with Republican presidents because they share the common frailty of muddled syntax and because, when they attempt eloquence, they do tend to spout a kind of Frontier Baroque.”
Darn right. And that, doggone it, brings us to a shout-out for the latest virtuoso of Frontier Baroque, bless her heart, the governor of the Last Frontier. Her reward’s in heaven.
At Sarah Palin’s old church in Wasilla, they spoke in tongues. Maybe that’s where she picked it up.
Hillary Clinton and John McCain ran against Barack Obama by sneering that their prose was meatier than The One’s poetry. Sarah’s running against the Democrat’s highfalutin eloquence by speakin’ in homespun haikus.
We could, following her strenuously folksy debate performance, wonder when elite became a bad thing in America. Navy Seals are elite, and they get lots of training so they can swim underwater and invade a foreign country, but if you’re governing the country that dispatches the Seals, it’s not O.K. to be elite? Can likable still trump knowledgeable at such a vulnerable crossroads for the country?
Did Joe Biden have to rhetorically rush over to Home Depot before Sarah could once more brandish “a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there brought to Washington, D.C.?”
With her pompom patois and sing-songy jingoism, Palin can bridge contradictory ideas that lead nowhere: One minute she promises to get “greater oversight” by government; the next, she lectures: “Government, you know, you’re not always a solution. In fact, too often you’re the problem.”
Talking at the debate about how she would “positively affect the impacts” of the climate change for which she’s loath to acknowledge human culpability, she did a dizzying verbal loop-de-loop: “With the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that, as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change subcabinet to start dealing with the impacts.” That was, miraculously, richer with content than an answer she gave Katie Couric: “You know, there are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now, with these impacts.”
At another point, she channeled Alicia Silverstone debating in “Clueless,” asserting, “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.” (Mostly the end-all.)
A political jukebox, she drowned out Biden’s specifics, offering lifestyle as substance. “In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been, you know, all our lives,” she said, making the middle class sound like it has its own ZIP code, superior to 90210 because “real” rules.
Sometimes, her sentences have a Yoda-like — “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not” — splendor. When she was asked by Couric if she’d ever negotiated with the Russians, the governor replied that when Putin “rears his head” he is headed for Alaska. Then she uttered yet another sentence that defies diagramming: “It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there.”
Reared heads reared themselves again at the debate, when she said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “were starting to really kind of rear the head of abuse.”
She dangles gerunds, mangles prepositions, randomly exiles nouns and verbs and also — “also” is her favorite vamping word — uses verbs better left as nouns, as in, “If Americans so bless us and privilege us with the opportunity of serving them,” or how she tried to “progress the agenda.”
Poppy Bush dropped personal pronouns and launched straight into verbs because he was minding his mother’s admonition against “the big I.” Palin, by contrast, uses a heck of a lot of language to praise herself as a fresh face with new ideas who has “joined this team that is a team of mavericks.” True mavericks don’t brand themselves.