September 4, 2008
Why are hurricanes given names? Long before the National Weather Service began doing it alphabetically in 1950, the colonial Spanish had done it using saints’ names, and in fact borrowed the word itself from the Mayan-Carib storm-god, Hurican.
It’s understandable. Hurricanes have a kind of organic life, and like certain animals, they remind us of ourselves: They are born; they grow up; some stay weak, others become powerful; they often behave erratically and destructively; they get old; they die — or more correctly, just fade away.
America’s most recent brushes with hurricanes have been eerily anthropomorphic. Three years ago, the one called Katrina laid New Orleans low and issued an indictment of the Bush administration’s negligence and incompetence better than any human whistle-blower ever could. To mark the anniversary almost to the day, Gustav appeared like some Nordic god to render judgment on the Republican party assembled in convention.
The plans of the gods often backfire, however. Though Gustav brought the whole Katrina nightmare and the government’s bumbling and often heartless response back to national consciousness, the hurricane also provided the Republicans unexpected opportunities: first, to knock their chief liabilities, the despised president and his conniving mentor Cheney off the St. Paul stage; second, to put a human face on the convention, turning it from the usual self-absorbed hoopla to a telethon for disaster relief, like Jerry Lewis was doing for muscular dystrophy at the same time; and third, to allow John McCain to project for the voting public his future on-the-ball and caring presidency by flying down to Mississippi to simulate taking matters in hand.
As Gustav aimed at the Gulf Coast, a third hurricane arrived from exactly the opposite direction — Alaska — and in exactly the opposite form — not a storm with human qualities but a human with storm qualities. As soon as she hit the mainland, Sarah Palin blew the shingles off presidential politics. Like all hurricanes, she started as a mild disturbance in an obscure place; few bothered to track her. But in the space of a few days she had become a Category Four, destroying the Democrats’ plans and forcing the temporary evacuation of pundits and strategists to firmer, if not higher, ground.
The gales now blow every which way. If McCain had chosen a male with the identical set of ideological credentials — evangelical Christian, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, pro-drilling in wildlife refuges (Mike Huckabee, for instance), he’d have predictably solidified his conservative base and also predictably lost many swing-voters to Obama, a relatively simple cost-benefit calculation. But a young female throws everything into disarray. Palin may not finally draw very many disgruntled but issue-oriented Hillary women, but she’s got even them thinking twice. Those she will draw are the non-ideological independents and undecideds, female and male, old and young, people who vote from the gut, admiring the veteran McCain yet looking for freshness, youth, and that certain feminine quality to balance him out — yin and yang.
Hurricane Sarah has also blown to bits the "experience" issue. After all the harangues against Obama’s callowness, and despite McCain’s lame assertions that Palin as governor and former mayor has the "executive experience" that his legislator-opponents lack (he, the lifetime legislator, of course lacks it too), this woman clearly would not be ready on Day One; Obama looks like an aged sage next to her. She could possibly hold her own on domestic questions, but on foreign policy she’s swimming entirely beyond her depth; her learning curve will be as steep as it gets with just a few weeks to bone up to debate Joe Biden. McCain may be thinking of grooming her to lead a new generation of Republicans made in his image by giving her the task of cleaning up corruption and waste in the federal bureaucracy as she has been doing in Alaska. But what if the grooming is interrupted by the unthinkable, which in constitutional terms is what the vice presidency is for? If that occurs, what the country will get is an appointed, not elected, vice president to be her regent.
Finally, at least for now, there are all those tornadoes that continue to spin off her personal life, upending ideological preconceptions like so many mobile homes. People, for example, find it admirable that she exercised her right to choose by choosing to have her Down-syndrome baby, but disturbing that she’s forsaking the demands of his care for the demands of a run for national office. They find it socially typical that her teenage daughter is pregnant, yet ask themselves if for all her family values she’s not just another absentee mom. And then there’s that Alaska state senate investigation of whether she spitefully fired her public safety commissioner for not firing her estranged former brother-in-law, a state trooper.
Just when you think you’ve got things straight, another cross-wind knocks you over.
Right now, the peaceful eye of Hurricane Sarah is moving over the St. Paul convention center, but what will happen next? Like Hurricane Gustav, she may quickly turn into an un-tropical depression without doing great damage. On the other hand, fueled by the hot and murky waters of politics and the press, new furies may be yet to come.
Meanwhile, Obama and Co. are hunkered down in hurricane central, sifting through the latest bulletins and devising contingency plans.