Bush Speechwriter and Republican Elders Celebrate Their New Joan of Arc

This morning, Michael Gerson, the former Bush Administration speechwriter, participated in a panel discussion on democracy and America’s role in the world alongside foreign policy mandarins like Henry Kissinger. Afterward, I walked up to him, and without missing a beat, he said: “You want to talk about Sarah Palin?”

Today, everyone did. It will be some time before we know whether the speech the Republican vice presidential candidate gave last night was merely a very good debut, or a truly historic moment of emergence—the Republican version of Barack Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic convention in 2004. But the morning after, in the sealed container of the Twin Cities, exalted opinions were marinating. Gerson told me that what he had witnessed the night before was the “emergence of a Republican folk hero.”

“She went from facing the question, even among Republicans, of ‘is she ready?’ to being the future of the Republican Party,” Gerson said. “I think a lot of people who were in the audience last night are going to remember that speech like the one Ronald Reagan gave in 1964, as the beginning of a long-term political love affair.”

I asked Gerson if, in his professional opinion, the speech’s success was a product of the material or the delivery. He told me he didn’t know who’d written the speech. (In fact, the author was reportedly Matthew Scully, a former colleague of Gerson’s from the White House speechwriting shop who penned a harsh article in the Atlantic Monthly last year claiming that Gerson hogged credit for collaborative efforts.)

“I’m not close to the McCain team,” Gerson said, diplomatically. But of Scully’s product, he said: “In the judgment of one speechwriter, he had half a dozen memorable lines in his speech which were better than any line in Obama’s acceptance speech.” Gerson was particularly impressed with “the contrast between small town values and elitism,” the attacks on the Democratic candidate’s supposed arrogance, which were nimble and “done with humor.”

“She delivered lines last night like Reagan did,” he said.

The invocation of Reagan has become a trope of Republican politics; they are always glimpsing the next one, like Tibetan monks searching the earth for the new Panchen Lama. Palin has long way to go before she proves the comparison—after all, 16 years passed between “A Time For Choosing,” the Reagan speech in support of Barry Goldwater that vaulted him onto the national stage, and the election of 1980.

However, there seems to be a broad consensus (for what that’s worth) that last night’s speech was a stunningly effective piece of rhetoric. Robert Schlesinger, deputy editor of U.S. News and World Report, and the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, said that Palin accomplished two important goals. The first was a policy objective, reassuring Republican base voters and reaching out to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters. “The other level, the more important level, especially given the questions raised about her qualifications, was that she had to close the perception gap,” Schlesinger said. “She had to go up there and put people at ease that she could play in the big leagues.”

Back at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, where Gerson and others were participating in a series of forums about the election, the discussion turned in late morning to domestic politics. A panel that included Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, the political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, and Vin Weber, formerly a prominent Republican congressman from Minnesota and now a lobbyist and chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, spent the better part of an hour assessing the importance of Palin’s speech. In contrast to the first few days of the convention, when Republicans went to elaborate (and, one suspected, not fully ingenuous) lengths to assure the world of their certainty that Palin was ready for high office, last night’s success freed them to acknowledge initial doubts.

“My first reaction,” to Palin’s selection, Weber said, “frankly, was skeptical.” After hearing the speech, the former lawmaker said, he’d changed his mind. In a typical election, he said, “the vice president is not likely to change the outcome,” but he suspected Palin was sui generis—that in some states, she might be even more in demand as speaker than the guy at the top of the ticket. “I’m going to tell you,” Weber said. “Sarah Palin is a rock star of the Republican Party, and they’re going to want her everywhere.”

“Us conventional types, we look at her resume and say it doesn’t quite meet the qualifications,” Weber added. But the Republican base, he said, “come to precisely the opposite conclusion: now we can trust his judgment.”

“That was what was stunning about the last 24 to 48 hours,” said Rothenberg. “It felt electrified last night, I thought. … She’s now got a critical two weeks where she’ll have to do some talk shows.”

Ornstein, however, said that he’d heard from Steve Schmidt, the McCain campaign’s chief strategist, that the plan was just the opposite. “They want to cloister her,” Ornstein said. “They’re clearly going to try to keep her away from the usual scrutiny.” He wryly observed that McCain foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann had been absent from another Humphrey Institute panel discussion, held the afternoon before Palin’s speech, which the advisor had previous committed to attend. “And we know why,” Ornstein said. He was apparently administering a crash course in international affairs to Palin.

“This is somebody who got a passport a year ago,” Ornstein said.

“I don’t think they can sustain very long keeping her from answering questions—I personally think she’ll do very well,” Weber said. “I think they’re making a big mistake if they don’t put her out there.”

For all of the Republicans’ giddiness today, it was easy to lose sight of a major historical point: whatever the speech means for Sarah Palin’s future ambitions—and it clearly means a lot—it’s highly improbable that her presence on the ticket will swing the race one way or another. Possibly, Orstein warned, Palin could still “implode,” with disastrous consequences for McCain, raising questions about his “shoot from the hip” style. Possibly, Rothstein said, Palin could make a difference in some crucial counties in western Ohio, the conservative communities that secured the 2004 election for President Bush. Possibly, Weber said, Palin would appeal to some younger rural and evangelical voters, who “might not have figured out what their moorings should be.”

“The notion that we have a vice presidential candidate that ice fishes is of critical importance,” the former congressman joked, getting a big laugh.

In the heat of such an exciting moment, however—the birth of a new hero—it was hard for most Republicans to keep their enthusiasm, or their praise, in check.

“People expected a female Dan Quayle,” said Michael Gerson. “And they got a mix between Annie Oakley and Joan of Arc.” Bush Speechwriter and Republican Elders Celebrate Their New Joan of Arc