ST. PAUL—In thinking about Sarah Palin's nomination, let me note a phenomenon: the woman who spends much of her adult life as a stay-at-home mother, and then takes a position of leadership and does better at it than her previous background might suggest. Example one: Katharine Graham, who took over as head of the Washington Post and Newsweek in the most wrenching of circumstances and performed more than ably. She tells the story better than anyone else in her elegantly written memoir Personal History. Example two: Madeleine Albright, who performed credibly for four years as Secretary of State. (I haven't read her memoir Madam Secretary.)
Example three: Nancy Pelosi. She was a stay-at-home mom who, as her kids grew older, was active in California politics, chairing the state Democratic Party and running the arrangements for the 1984 Democratic National Convention in 1984. But she didn't run for office until the youngest of her five children was a senior in high school, in a 1987 special election.
Example four: Geraldine Ferraro. Yes, she was in her third term in the House when she was nominated for vice president. But she did not serve on the committees handling foreign or defense policy and she did not have any major legislative achievements; she voted pretty much on the Democratic Party line. Before she was first elected to Congress in 1978, she was an assistant district attorney in Queens County handling domestic affairs cases—the kind of assignment a woman lawyer tended to get in those days. There was nothing in her background that suggested she could go toe-to-toe with an incumbent vice president who had been director of the CIA. But, at least in my recollection, Ferraro held her own in the 1984 vice presidential debate. And she has participated ably in political and public policy discussions ever since.
My theory: There exist a lot of women who devote many years primarily to raising children and managing their household but who also are intellectually curious and active, who learn from the experience of those around them (including but not limited to their husbands) and who prove capable of performing very well, thank you, on the national stage—and much better than people expected on the basis of their previous career. The interesting question here in St. Paul and around the country is whether Sarah Palin is one of these women. Unlike Graham and Albright, and like Ferraro, she has had several years of exposure in electoral politics and public office, albeit at a much less visible level than she has now. Her performance in Dayton last Friday and on the tapes I have found on youtube.com suggest to me that the answer may turn out to be yes.