Sarah Palin and
the concept that dare not speak its name
At first, she was knocked as a newcomer to big-league politics. Too inexperienced to be just a heartbeat away from the Presidency. She fired back: No darling of the liberal media elite was she. She was just plain-folks Palin. A gun-totin', moose-shootin', pro-life hockey Mom with, yes, an unwed daughter who's five months pregnant. In other words, women of America, just like you.
Sarah Palin might just be right— at least, in mirroring an increasingly visible segment of American womanhood.
For the fact is that cocksure, lowbrow, baby-totin’ Sarah Palin more closely resembles many working single moms in the Lower 48 than those on the East and West coasts who scorn her as a under-educated rube. Where's the coonskin cap? You know, the one Ben Franklin wore to the French Court as America's first down homey.
Finally, the 800-pound gorilla is out of the cage. The 'C' word— class— is the one word in the American lexicon that's even better hidden in polite public discourse than race.
We can talk about elites (read: media types and what Richard Nixon used to call Harvard “eggheads,” and his disgraced vice-president, Spiro Agnew, called “nattering nabobs of negativism”). We can talk about the middle class (anyone making less than $5-millon per annum, John McCain reckons). We can talk in code about the disadvantaged and the under-class (read: welfare queens and urban slum dwellers). But we can't talk about class, beyond the term’s racial and economic distinctions.
Bush the elder has it, W doesn’t
In the United States, class status— and where you fit in— means where you were educated, your vocabulary and diction, where you live, how you dress, how professional your job, your family pedigree, how connected you are— and only incidentally how much money you make. High class doesn't necessarily mean you're the richest, smartest, or most powerful. (Patrician George H.W. Bush has it; W doesn't). But it does mean that you’re a paid-up member of the Establishment, based in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, with outposts in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
And by this definition, Sarah Palin is strictly take-me-home-for-$1.99 working-class.
Bill Maher called her a “stewardess” (ouch!). A widely circulated recent e-mail labeled her a redneck who gave her children “'trailer-park trash names”: Piper, Track, Trig, Bristol and Willow. That smarts.
“Many liberals,” David Brooks writes in The New York Times, “claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant.” (Elsewhere Brooks dubs liberals “coastal condescenders.”) Given “Barracuda” Palin's opinions on abortion, church-going, book-banning, gays, guns and gutting fish, start spraying the Raid.
Paul Fussell’s guide to status
The novelist John O'Hara made a whole career out of probing into this touchy subject of class, to which he was astonishingly sensitive. More recently, the former Penn professor Paul Fussell took a rare look at American status and its little-discussed markers, and came up with a new set of rungs on the social climbing ladder. In his 1983 book Class: A Guide Through the American Social Status System, Fussell described a pecking order divided not by Upper, Middle, and Lower but by Top out-of-sight, Upper, Upper middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-Proletarian, Low Proletarian, Destitute and Out-of-Sight.
By Fussell's reckoning, it's fairly easy to pigeonhole political contenders. Joe Biden gets marks for living in Greenville, Delaware, home of the DuPonts. He dresses well. He’s well traveled. Marks off for graduating from Syracuse University and being born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Rank: Upper middle.
McCain is a graduate of the Episcopal School in Washington, was a hard drinker when younger, was an Episcopalian before he was born-again. He gets marks for schooling, drinking and Episcopaling. Points off for getting born again. Rank: Upper Middle.
(Interestingly, Cindy McCain, for all her centomillion net worth, is only Middle. Too much jewelry and conspicuous clothing— $300,000 worth, it was estimated during one GOP Convention night.)
The Obamas as ‘People Like Us'
The Obamas, on the other hand, are both Upper Middle— no little thanks to their style (her fashion sense), linguistic abilities and accents (not a trace of Richard Daley's Chicago), education (an Ivy hat-trick with Harvard, Princeton and Columbia), and “appropriate” values. In other words, they're PLU (People Like US). One day, the Obamas might even be Upper — at least when they dump those pesky student loans.
Palin is a whole other kettle of fish. A graduate of the University of Ida-where? Children with, yes, let's face it, déclassé names, and five of them, no less. A hockey mom. A Midwestern twang for an accent. The eyeglasses. OMG, the big hair! A sister who runs a gas station. There's no end to it. One plus: A semi-employed husband. Rank: High proletarian.
My favorite snob, the late British MP Alan Clark, once delivered one of the cruelest digs (to my mind, at least) in political campaigning. Clark charged that his honorable opponent was “the kind of chap who has to buy his own furniture.” The implication being, of course, that, unlike Clark and those in his lineage (his father was Lord Kenneth Clark), his opponent could not count on inherited antiques to furnish his home.
But don't count on Joe Biden (Upper Middle) to deliver that zinger against Sarah Palin (Upper Proletarian) in next month's vice-presidential debate.