Monday, February 8, 2010

Sentimental Journey

There was quite a bit of attention paid to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s appearance at the national Tea Party convention in Nashville this past weekend. She gave a speech that according to NPR “electrified” the crowd of 600 and she got off some good zingers, snark, and evangelism, something that sounds more like she was preaching at a carnival tent show than a political convention.

According to those who watched the speech, it was a mish-mash of all the usual right-wing complaints about President Obama:

She blasted him for rising deficits, “apologizing for America” in speeches in other countries, and for allowing the so-called Christmas bomber to board a plane headed for the United States, saying he was weak on the war on terrorism.

“To win that war, we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law,” she declared.

Do I have to explain that the deficits were raised before Mr. Obama came into office and would be a lot worse now if he hadn’t gotten the stimulus package; that making up to countries for the roughshod way that the Bush/Cheney cowboys ran over the rest of the world isn’t “apologizing,” it’s called “diplomacy”; and that as inconvenient as it may be, the United States Constitution, with all its protections against the heavy hand of the government against the people, is still the law of the land? Ms. Palin may not like it, but it’s been settled law for over 100 years that the Bill of Rights apply to all people in the United States, including foreigners arrested on our soil for crimes committed on our soil, not just American citizens. It helps that the commander in chief was a professor of law; that’s one of the basic things that separates this country from previous experiences with tyranny. By the way, when the Bush/Cheney administration gave terror suspects their Miranda rights, tried them in a civilian court, locked them up in American prisons, and announced plans to close Gitmo, she and the rest of the teabaggers didn’t say a word. (It’s also more than a little ironic that Ms. Palin mocked the president for using a teleprompter when she scribbled cues on her hand for the Q&A portion of the pageant like a high school kid trying to crib on a test.)

What strikes me about this whole tea party thing is that it reminds me of the political agitation of my youth — the antiwar demonstrations and marches on Washington and the protests against the “establishment”. Those of us that were involved in it forty years ago probably had has much passion and fervor for it as the folks who gathered in Nashville to hear Sarah Palin channel George Wallace this past weekend. There were just as many crude assaults on the senses and sensibilities back then as there were today and the same kind of tasteless attacks on the president at the time as there were today (except I don’t think there were as many dog-whistles to racist and nativist attitudes among the hippies). It was a movement, not a political party, and in 1969 there was no single leader of the antiwar movement, either. He had been assassinated in June 1968.

The problem with movements is that they don’t elect presidents… except for the other side when they’re perceived to be aligned with one political party as the Democrats were with the antiwar movement. Franklin Roosevelt faced a populist rebellion during the Depression at the hands of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and he was re-elected four times. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 was cemented by the street riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, as was his re-election in 1972 by the shrewd politicization and demonization of the antiwar movement — and by transference, of the Democrats — by his White House and his take-no-prisoners vice president, Spiro Agnew. (Sound familiar?) Had it not been for Watergate, Ronald Reagan would have been the GOP nominee in 1976, and Jimmy Carter was about as far away from the counter-culture movement as you could get in the Democratic Party. But the damage was done, and it took twenty years for the Democrats to get their footing again, and that was at the hands of Bill Clinton, a centrist Southerner and master politician. To this day, the Democrats are still skittish about being linked to the dirty effing hippies.

So the tea party conventioneers might well take a lesson from history. They can enjoy their time in the limelight and generate all the soundbites and bumper stickers, but for now, their political might is mainly seen as how much they can get on TV and who can come up with the most outrageous statement in order to get the attention. (If the tea-partiers can learn from history — which is highly unlikely — they’ll figure out where this is going and nominate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) for president in 2016.) It’s all very nostalgic for those of us who remember the days of the war moratoriums and trying to levitate the Pentagon, and it all seems very romantic, thanks to the love-peace-and-tie-dyed culture. But it really didn’t do anything much for the direction of the country except give us Republicans in the White House… and some really great rock music.