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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008

Small-Town Veep

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I grew up in a small town in Indiana with a population of about 5,000. The town had two stoplights, one on each end of the downtown area, which stretched for one block.

On one end was the Ben Franklin store, and on the other was a shoe store where we could see our feet inside our new shoes with an X-ray machine that no doubt spewed lethal doses of radiation. My experience growing up in that little town prepared me for many things, but I’m not sure I was prepared to jump almost directly from the small-minded concerns of a small town to the vice presidency of the United States and quite possibly the presidency.

Of course, the only time that happens is in one of those trite movies starring, oh, Reese Witherspoon as a perky, small-town girl who somehow falls into the presidency and stuns the professional politicians, all played by Fred MacMurray look-alikes, with her homespun Dolly Parton wisdom.

Apparently, Republican presidential nominee John McCain watches way too many PG-rated comedies. After a stunningly successful Democratic National Convention, which built to a historic speech by presidential nominee Barack Obama that was watched by more people than the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the only way McCain could get any attention was to do something totally unexpected.

So McCain, who has declared Obama’s 20-year career as a political organizer and elected official insufficient to lead the country, decided to pick a running mate who just a year and a half ago was mayor of a small town about the size of the one where I grew up. McCain turned 72 on the day he announced Sarah Palin, the novice governor of Alaska, as his running mate. If McCain were elected, which is looking increasingly unlikely, the oldest man in American history to assume the presidency would have the least experienced, least accomplished vice president in history one heartbeat away from leading our nation.

And we all know that anything can happen in politics. We’ve just suffered through eight years under George Bush, one of the worst presidents in history, who was installed by conservatives on the Supreme Court after his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, beat him nationally by more than half a million votes.

Mythical Values

As an expert on small-town America, I would like to provide a little insight into those salt-of-the-earth, small-town values we’re sure to hear about to justify the forehead-slapping choice of Palin.

Those Norman Rockwell values are mythical. Small towns are often small minded, mean-spirited places. My favorite story about my own town is how our leaders reacted after a train derailment on the edge of town. You know the small-town image: Everybody in town pitches in to do anything they can to lend a helping hand. Our town fathers descended on the train derailment, all right. But because it was a freight train, rather than a passenger train, their primary concern was for the cargo. The mayor and several members of the town council were arrested for looting the boxcars.

Now I realize small towns in Alaska may be a little different from small towns in Indiana. From my limited knowledge based on “Northern Exposure” and a few real-life characters I’ve met over the years, small towns in Alaska are wilder and woollier.

My wife had an Uncle Gobel and Aunt Marie living in Alaska who would appear unexpectedly at family gatherings every decade or so. Gobel and Marie were colorful and delightful—their language was especially colorful—but I never really saw them as potential international diplomats walking the hallowed halls of government.

It would be totally sexist to suggest Palin looks exactly like one of those schoolmarms in the movies who becomes ravishingly beautiful just by taking off those big glasses and letting down all that hair piled on top of her head. But it’s even more sexist and insulting for McCain to choose Palin, a woman with no apparent qualifications to lead the nation, just because he thinks angry Hillary Clinton supporters are upset over the nomination of Obama.

Do Republicans really think women are so irrational as to vote for any woman put on the ticket, no matter how offensive to women her political beliefs might be? What possible appeal to hard-core Clinton supporters could there be in a right-wing, evangelical woman who opposes women’s rights, abortion even to save a woman’s life and equal pay for equal work? The claim is that Palin is a political reformer. In Alaskan politics, that means she’s one of the few Republican officials who is not currently under indictment. She’s merely under investigation.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.