By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Hawaii and Alaska came late to statehood in 1959, but our two youngest states produced the two new shining stars on opposing party tickets in the 2008 presidential election. A year later, now look at 'em: high in the skies of two different Americas.
Hawaii gave us President Barack Obama, of course. Alaska's gift to the Lower 48 will forever be Sarah Palin, author of a rambling tome titled Going Rogue: An American Life, published this week. The former Alaska governor, Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee, chosen by Sen. John McCain as his running mate.
There we have it: the President and the Rogue. Quite a pair as far apart as, well, Alaska and Hawaii.
Besides their states, the president and the rogue represent the political emergence of our fortysomething generation, born in the early 1960s. Obama, 48, was born during the first summer of the Thousand Days of John F. Kennedy's presidency. Palin, 45, was born in the first winter of the Lyndon B. Johnson years.
Her star rose when McCain made a reckless choice his staff started ruing soon after she climbed aboard the campaign. Her autobiography has none of the usual grace notes of gratitude to a national candidate who plucked her from a sea of governors; Palin must think they're too 20th century. Her first-person style is more upfront, rambunctious, rough and tumble. Seldom does she leave a score unsettled with the McCain campaign or the "liberal media." Darn that Katie Couric and her stuck-up questions.
On the hustings, Palin's mangled, tangled English syntax was the first thing you noticed about her, compared to the smooth, lyrical cadences of Obama's speeches. The second thing was a sharpness, in words often said with a smile, toward those who don't fit her idea of real Americans—like Chicagoans and other city dwellers.
In the book, she still casts herself as the darling of small towns like Wasilla, which she presents as venues of virtue. As for Juneau, she says, it has to be the most beautiful state capital anywhere—just like her grandson is the "most beautiful baby boy," as she told Oprah. In speaking of the nation's capital, she always adds the "D.C." with a little sneer which we denizens don't appreciate as a coded dig among Republicans. Is all this provincial naiveté or what the English call bloody-mindedness?
The third thing you see is how well Palin knows and plays to her audience. She is not trying to make new friends with this bestseller, but to wink at and reach out to a base that skews older, white, and male. Many are tuned into Rush Limbaugh's worldview. This is a somewhat angry constituency that defines itself in strenuous opposition to Democratic presidents.
In any other country, Obama's journey to the White House would be an impossible, not an improbable dream. His haunting memoir, Dreams From My Father, gives the reader a ride along the way, with one part devoted to something Palin was quick to criticize: community organizing. In an ordinary Western democracy, Palin's bright-eyed brand of anti-abortion, pro-gun politics might be seen as a bit extreme. But we Americans defiantly contain multitudes and contradictions. Poet Walt Whitman, how right you are.
Truly these faraway states, Hawaii and Alaska, can claim they have come of age and changed the course of history. Right now, we sure wouldn't be the same without them. Either one of them: the president or the radical rogue.