Sarah Palin Wasn't Always a Caricature

By Susan Milligan

Why would a sitting governor who has decent approval ratings at home and who seems to actually enjoy running his or her state want to be on a presidential ticket?

The public, and especially the media, tend to be particularly hard on governors, who are, especially in a national campaign, the poster children for their respective states. We unfairly attach to the governor all of his or her state's problems and all of the state's unkind caricatures. Bill Clinton was dismissed as "the failed governor of a small state" (and "small" was meant to be as much of a sneer as "failed"). Fellow Arkansan Mike Huckabee, also the state's governor, was derided as a hick who might have had a quick wit and a compelling weight loss story, but who had no business being among the big boys of presidential politics. then Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry were ridiculed as unsophisticated and lacking in basic smarts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Sarah Palin.]

True, some of those characterizations were earned by the candidates themselves. Perry looked pretty foolish in New Hampshire, when he said something indicating he not only did not know the voting age was 18, but did not know the date of the general election. Palin's performances in TV interviews showed her to be wildly unprepared for the White House.

But unfairly, the governors who get shooed away from the big-time jobs are forever tainted, carrying baggage they never would have had to lift if they had not sought or been tapped for higher office. In the HBO film version of Game Change, Julianne Moore correctly portrays Palin as someone who was not remotely ready to lead the country. That was expected, and one can understand why Palin said she didn't watch it. But the viewer also comes away with another, more sympathetic truth: that Palin was living a perfectly happy life in her native Alaska, popular with her constituents and governing a state she clearly loves, only to be subjected to the slings, arrows, and outright manipulations of the presidential campaign. She may have used the 2008 campaign to advance her TV and political career, but she was used, too, and in a way that was much more damaging to her and her family.

Perry surely stumbled during his brief campaign, and he has no one but himself to blame for that. But last Saturday night, at a political dinner, he showed a side to himself that made the crowd understand how this purportedly unsophisticated candidate got elected in the first place. He was funny, self-deprecating, and sort of sweet. He recounted how he had been calling a veteran reporter by the wrong name on the campaign trail, and how the reporter kindly never corrected him. Perry both apologized and thanked the reporter. And even when he took a good-natured shot at former Gov. Mitt Romney ("I keep expecting him to say, 'Excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon?'" Perry said), he made fun of himself and even his state. He liked Romney, Perry said-or, as he explained, as much as any good-looking man can like another good-looking man without breaking the law in Texas.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Huckabee had his problems, as well, but the greatest was that he didn't fit the establishment image of a chief executive. He gave a terrific speech about Pakistan and the use of diplomacy before force at a Washington think tank during the 2004 primary. But since Huckabee had already been dismissed as a Hee Haw-viewing dude from Arkansas, the excellent address got little coverage. Clinton won the presidency, but only after fighting the criticisms of having been governor of only Arkansas.

Governors have a hard enough job as it is. People blame them for a lot of things, but treat them with less deference than that given to a president or even a U.S. senator. By law, they can't run budget deficits, making the fiscal battles even more difficult. And they are often hit with federal mandates they cannot control or defy.

Governors, by definition, go through the wringer in doing their jobs. That doesn't necessarily qualify them to be president. But we could do better by treating them as the crisis-jugglers that they are, instead of as cartoon mascots for their states.