Seated on the same side of an antique table before a large audience, Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev smile at one another as they exchange documents encased in red and black leather folders. The new START treaty has been signed, completing a journey Obama began when he visited the Czech Republic a year ago and announced his intention to begin ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He has reset relations between Russia and the United States and fulfilled a dream of another American President: Ronald Reagan. The cold war is over. Back in America, the former half-term governor of Alaska decries the horror of Obama’s achievement by invoking the Gipper:
We miss Ronald Reagan who used to say, when he would look at our enemies, he would say: ‘No. You lose. We win.’ That’s what we miss. And that is what we have to get back to,” says Sarah Palin. Compacting her historical error, she adds: ‘No administration in America’s history would, I think, ever have considered such a step.’
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos thinks her historically inaccurate remarks are important, so in an interview with President Obama he asks: “Sarah Palin said you’re like a kid who says, ‘Punch me in the face, and I’m not going to retaliate.’ Your response?”
“I really have no response,” Obama answers at first. A full moment passes before he completes his thought. “Because last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues.” His half-smile is not mocking, it is reluctant, the look of a man who has made the best of a bad question while pointing out a simple truth.
Palin’s comments on START reveal a disturbing truth; that when she doesn’t have an expert to tell her what to think, all she can do is recite the factoids that were drilled into her during the campaign. Switch to the GOP Southern Leadership Council where Palin is seething. Without Randy Scheunemann to advise on foreign affairs, she has to wing it. She reaches in and pulls out a card from the past:
“With all the vast nuclear experience he acquired as a community organizer, a part time Senator and a full time candidate, all that experience and still no accomplishment to date with North Korea and Iran.”
She retaliates like an Israeli commando, striking back twice as hard as she is hit, and yet there is a new element that is decidedly odd. Why is she speaking in campaign slogans from two years ago? Obama has been commander in chief for over a year, a period in which he has met or spoken with the Russian President sixteen times to personally negotiate details of the treaty.
Can it be that her real beef is not about policy, but the suggestion that she knows less than he?
Obama studied non-proliferation long before running for office. His college thesis at Columbia was called “Soviet Nuclear Disarmament.” He spoke passionately on the subject on the campaign trail in 2004. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama took his first trip as U.S. Senator in 2005 to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to examine facilities for the storage and destruction of conventional, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. He co-authored the “Lugar-Obama Non-proliferation Initiative,” which enhanced U.S. efforts to destroy conventional weapons stockpiles and detect and interdict weapons and materials of mass destruction throughout the world. This legislation was signed into law by President Bush in January 2007.
So why is Palin picking a fight with someone above her weight belt? The answer can be found in revelations from the McCain campaign’s senior staff. Assigned the job of prepping her for upcoming interviews and debates, they became apoplectic when they realized her dearth of knowledge on world affairs. To assuage their fears, Palin relayed that she could memorize facts quickly if they wrote them down on note cards.
Although she could memorize facts, she lacked an ability to conceptualize or use the information in alternative contexts, a problem most evident in her failed interviews where she answered specific questions with the wrong string of facts. It is not surprising that one of her contractual demands in her new persona as professional speaker is that no question be asked of her that has not been prescreened by staff. She uses campaign-speak to attack Obama because that is the memorized card she has pulled for the current situation, even though it has no relevance.
Compare the qualities of Sarah Palin’s dependence on note cards to how Dmitri Medvedev described Obama to George Stephanopoulos:
STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you make of Barack Obama the man?
MEDVEDEV: He’s very comfortable partner, it’s very interesting to be with him. The most important thing that distinguishes him from many other people . . . he’s a thinker, he thinks when he speaks. Which is already pretty good. He’s eager to listen to his partner, which is a pretty good quality for a politician. Because any politician is to a certain degree a mentor. They preach something. And the ability to listen to their partner is very important for the politician. And he is pretty deeply immersed in the subject, so he has a good knowledge of what he’s talking about. There was no instance in our meetings with Mr. Obama where he wasn’t well prepared for the questions. This is very good.”
The Russian leader isn’t wrong; whether you agree with Obama’s policies or not, you cannot dispute that Barack Obama is a thinker, while Sarah Palin – “like many other people” — is not. It’s an important difference.