Opinion

Can Sarah Palin be more than a political celebrity?

She must decide whether she wants to be a heavyweight public servant or a rock star.

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Sarah Palin's political learning curve has to be steep if she hopes to be taken seriously as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

Last autumn she sought to shore up her foreign-policy credentials by pointing out that you can see Russia from land in Alaska. It would be well if she also learned the old Russian proverb, "If you want to run with the wolves, you have to learn to howl like a wolf."

The media's treatment of the former Alaska governor and her family has at times crossed a line, but Ms. Palin's whining about it doesn't help. She should accept that harsh portrayals go with being a celebrity.

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She may take some comfort in knowing that politicians a century ago had it worse. In 1884, Republican opponents of Grover Cleveland discovered that, as a young man, the eventual two-term president may have sired a child out of wedlock. Their campaign chant became, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? He's gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."

Palin's education ought to begin with an honesty check. She needs to come to grips with the fact that she was not Republican nominee John McCain's first choice to be vice president.

A senior McCain adviser told me that the Arizona senator really preferred Connecticut senator and Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman to be his running mate. But when the McCain staff privately polled party delegates about Senator Lieberman's acceptability in GOP circles, half indicated they would walk out of the convention if Lieberman was on the ticket, and the other half said they would acquiesce but sit on their hands.

The McCain campaign scarcely had five days to find their man a running mate. Palin was effectively forced upon a reluctant Senator McCain in a risky campaign move designed to reverse Barack Obama's momentum.

Last autumn's campaign was a mere flirtation, given what may lie ahead for Palin if she decides to throw her hat in the ring. She must decide whether she wants to be a heavyweight public servant or a rock star. Republicans have a responsibility to decide not only if she can win, but also whether she has the gravitas to do the job.

Then the public has to decide how attached it wants to get to the latest political celebrity. Celebritydom is damaging – both to the stars and their admirers. It is excessively egocentric. It transgresses the classic Greek rule of self-governance, "Beware of hubris!" Pride and vanity are the Achilles' heel of those who aspire to greatness.

In recent years, politicians and the media have shamelessly pandered to and promoted the growing public appetite for the telegenic and the vapid.

Shortly before Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, a leading Republican US senator introduced a bill that would amend the Constitution and make the Austrian-born superstar eligible to run for president. (The irony the GOP eventually discovered is that Governor Schwarzenegger is a classic European liberal.)

Republicans now in search of a new messiah might ask themselves if Palin is truly another Ronald Reagan, as more than a few would like to believe. It wasn't movie star glitter that made President Reagan so effective but rather his political genius, which rivaled that of Franklin Roosevelt.

Reagan charmed scores of congressional Democrats into embracing his points of view on dozens of issues. In 1981, I watched big-spending Democrats walk out of the West Wing completely "Reaganized," happily confessing they were converted to his spending reductions and other presidential initiatives.

Setting aside his two terms as governor of California, presiding over what would become the world's seventh-largest economy, Reagan had a biblical talent for making "even his enemies to be at peace with him."

He was aided by supreme self-confidence. That confidence, and his actor's sense of timing, compelled voters to like him. Political instinct made him far more than a celebrity. I can't imagine Reagan walking out of the governor's office in Sacramento before the job was completed – as Palin has done in Juneau.

Over the next three years, Palin needs to develop skills beyond a TV persona who can read scripts off a teleprompter.

During his campaign for governor, Schwarzenegger acknowledged his weakness on state policies. So he surrounded himself with wonks and worked 12-hour days reading and studying.

Is Palin doing the same? Her July op-ed on cap-and-trade legislation was a flop. And her reference in August to the prospect of the sick, the elderly, and the disabled facing a government "death panel" brought plenty of heat but little light to the complicated issue of national healthcare reform.

America's political stage is increasingly a burlesque featuring embarrassingly ill-informed political stars. The problem is the public's obsession with political celebrities who outemote public servants and statesmen. Twenty minutes on "Saturday Night Live" trumps 20 years of wisdom nowadays.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor.

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