Nick Jans’ recent editorial piece on Sarah Palin struck me as humorous. Jans criticized Palin’s “glaring, city-slicker klutziness” as she attempts to portray herself as a woman of the Alaskan land on her reality TV show. I haven’t watched Palin’s show, but what he describes doesn’t surprise me, given the genre and the participant.

What struck me most in Jans editorial are two comments. The first is his observation that “Sarah Palin’s Alaska seems to have ushered in a new and troubling era in our democracy: the point where a burgeoning cultural fascination with reality TV and celebrity worship intersected mainstream politics, and the three merged into one.” Second, he concludes that given the numerous ways in which politicians can manipulate their image, “Americans are essentially casting votes for fictional characters.”

The only thing new about Palin’s approach is the social media available in creating a modern public persona. Rewind to 1840, for example, and you find William Henry Harrison’s campaign creating a fictionalized presentation of the “hero” of the battles of Tippecanoe and the Thames. Harrison was depicted as a man from humble origins, someone with much in common with the average American. In reality, he was the scion of a wealthy Virginia family. His opponent, Martin Van Buren, whose background actually was modest, was portrayed as a wealthy aristocrat out of touch with the common man.

It pays to keep some perspective on politicians. When voting for a political candidate or looking for an ideological spokesperson, understand that they have a public persona and a private persona. What voters see is a scrubbed version that at its core represents some element of the individual, but almost certainly is not the complete picture. What one makes of a public official should include a realistic assessment of both aspects so that one doesn’t fall for the fiction.

6 thoughts on “What Do Sarah Palin and William Henry Harrison Have in Common?

  1. What counts for me in a politician is his or her record, associations, and enemies. When most of them hold press conferences, interviews, or “debates,” they start sounding like zombies with a recording inside.

    Two things initially impressed me about Sarah Palin: her role in defeating a corrupt governor from her own party and her ability to speak plain English in her speeches. I was disappointed that she didn’t run for the Senate against the daughter of the corrupt govenor in 2010. Before I would support her for President, I would like to see her in an unscripted environment and giving talks on serious policy issues, such as energy.

    The enemies a policiaisn makes are also important. Whatever Sarah Palin is, she scares the living hell out of the radical left.

    1. Jacksonian-era voters were spared much of the scripting that goes on today, but it certainly wasn’t absent. Of course, they weren’t supposed to stump for votes personally, so they wrote letters that were intended to be published for public consumption. At least there wasn’t a 24-hour news cycle back then.

  2. Americans are essentially casting votes for fictional characters.

    I’d never really thought of it in those exact terms but you’re right. When how much someone sweats on camera could change the course of history we definitely seem to be voting for an image not a person.

  3. American politics often returns to the Early Republic where it began. The most ominous flashback to this era is the recent movement to give state legislatures the right to nulify an act of congress by voting it down by a 2/3 margin. According to the NYT this amendment has already passed a number of state legislatures, mostly in the South but in other Republican controlled states. The author of this attempt to change the constitution is noted as a law professor in Virginia. But we know better, it was John C, Calhoun.

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