Both attractive women from Nowhere Fancy exploited their femininity. But only one could command an interview.
15 June 2010
Visiting Margaret Thatcher is a traditional rite among Republican presidential aspirants – Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney all pitched up on her doorstep in 2008. But Sarah Palin, who announced on her Facebook site this week that she hopes to secure a meeting with “one of my political heroines, the ‘Iron Lady’,” has a more obvious claim to be Thatcher’s heir. She’s an attractive woman from Nowhere Fancy, just as Thatcher was, and snobs deplore her for it, just as they deplored Thatcher.
That said, if Palin hopes to style herself as the second coming she has a few things to learn.
She might wish to study Thatcher’s disciplined command of arguments, facts and statistics, for instance. By the time Thatcher was elected, she’d enjoyed a 20-year parliamentary career. Her clearly expressed views – clearly expressed, I stress – about every crisis, problem and debate of concern to Britain were a matter of public record. Palin has neither said nor written a line so far that would allow anyone reasonably to conclude that her opinions about economic and foreign policy are as cogent and informed as Thatcher’s. No one (not me, anyway) can argue with her conservative instincts, but to compare her ability to express them with Thatcher’s would be ludicrous.
This ability allowed Thatcher to dominate in unscripted interviews. When interrogated by hostile journalists she left them speechless and stuttering. She regularly ate Neil Kinnock for lunch during prime minister’s questions. Her eidetic command of inflation statistics verged on the weird, suggesting the obsessive aspect of men who routinely memorise train schedules.
Above all, she was always prepared. You will never find an example of Thatcher caught short in the way Palin was by CBS anchor Katie Couric, talking about Republican presidential runner John McCain’s stance on regulation.
Couric: “Can you give me any other examples in his 26 years of John McCain truly taking a stand on this?”
Palin: “I can give you examples of things that John McCain has done that has shown his foresight, his pragmatism, and his leadership abilities. And that is what America needs today.”
Couric: “I’m just going to ask you one more time – not to belabour the point. Specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation.”
Palin: “I’ll try to find you some and I’ll bring them to you.”
Thatcher did not wing it. She studied incessantly. But in the end, she had a knack for knowing stuff and for whipping out what she knew when she needed it. If Palin does, she’s kept it well under wraps so far. If she can’t manage to reveal that talent, however, she may well emulate Thatcher’s gift for exploiting the public’s aversion to men who attack women. In fact it’s not clear that she needs any lessons in this.
The outraged reaction to the news that Barack Obama had called Palin a pig in lipstick – yes, of course he meant Palin – put me in mind of a conversation I had with Neil Kinnock. He couldn’t attack her the way he would a male opponent. “It would have bloody demeaned me to have done that,” he said. “If you’re doing it, you know, toe-to-toe, with a fellow about your age, or even if he’d been a bit older than myself, that would have been … ” [Me:] “So, you’re basically saying, ‘I couldn’t hit a girl’.” “Well, I know I couldn’t hit a girl.”
Like Obama, he couldn’t work out how to attack a certain kind of woman without losing the public’s sympathy. Obama was able to acquit himself against a different kind of female opponent. Were this not so, Hillary Clinton would have led the Democratic ticket. But the electorate did not, deep down, view Clinton as a woman. Nothing about her inspired chivalrous feelings.
Not so Thatcher, and not so Palin. Thatcher, like Palin, knew how to exploit her femininity – how to engender the desire not only to obey her but to protect her. Two days after her election, in 1979, she arrived to address the 1922 Committee. “She was flanked only by the all-male officers of the committee,” recalls her former chancellor Geoffrey Howe. “Suddenly she looked very beautiful – and very frail, as the half-dozen knights of the shires towered over her. It was a moving, almost feudal occasion. Tears came to my eyes.”
Palin is a mother of five, ripe, fertile, and beautiful. Standing on the podium at the Republican convention, swaying slightly on her heels, blinking in the bright lights, her glasses hinting at vulnerability under all that exuberant energy, she inspired in observers a sympathetic tenderness, like an adolescent gymnast attempting a particularly difficult landing after a daring vault.
When Palin is bullied, it is every normal man’s instinct to protect her and every normal woman’s instinct to identify with her. If she hits back, everyone will find her plucky and adorable. If her opponent returns the punches in kind, he or she will look like a jerk. If Palin can’t learn from Thatcher to master the statistics, she’d better concentrate on mastering that. It won’t be hard: she’s well on her way as it is.