Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sarah Palin: Devotion and Resignation

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's resignation speech is really very peculiar. The New York Times reprints the full text of the speech here. It is worth a read.

My guess is that those who were most enthusiastic for Sarah Palin during the recent presidential campaign will find a way to be enthusiastic about the resignation speech and the prospects for a Palin presidential campaign in 2012.

But the peculiarities of the speech do little to put aside the doubts of many Americans -- including Independents and Republicans -- that Palin is a lightweight, non-serious politician and would be a disaster in the White House.

A strange time for governors.

Gail Collins in the Times quotes a typical passage from the speech: “And a problem in our country today is apathy,” she said on Friday as she announced that she would resign as governor of Alaska at the end of the month. “It would be apathetic to just hunker down and ‘go with the flow.’ Nah, only dead fish ‘go with the flow.’ No. Productive, fulfilled people determine where to put their efforts, choosing to wisely utilize precious time ... to BUILD UP.” Collins then comments: "Basically, the point was that Palin is quitting as governor because she’s not a quitter."Gail Collins, "Sarah's Straight Talk," New York Times, 4 July 2009.

Governor Palin's speech is peculiar in so many ways. It is fairly long, and it rambles, and in rambling it offers contradictory logics about matters that never had to be raised in the first place. It is hard for a rhetorical critic not to notice that no self-evident situational exigence, strongly visible to her public, was in circulation before the speech, and so part of her rhetorical task would be to offer a convincing depiction of the situation that called forth her resignation. This she really did not do, thus creating an immediate stampede on the part of commentators in the news about her possible motives -- the most likely of which, in their view, is that Palin is planning to run for president and has just further damaged her chances.

Or that there is some further scandal about to burst forth, following a long trail of ethics investigations into the behavior of Governor Palin and her cabinet and family.

Or that the motivation was temperamental and psychological -- that Palin is basically either (1) a committed family person and Christian who has higher priorities; or (2) that she is a flake and a lightweight. There is plenty of evidence for both of these competing views, the choice perhaps depending on one's degree of political sympathy for Palin.

This resignation might be illuminated, at least rhetorically, by recalling Albert O. Hirschman's Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970). Hirschman's fascinating little book considers the varieties of individual response to a failing organization -- one can simply leave (or leave under protest); one can stay and try to give voice to arguments and appeals that might bring about change (or leave while giving voice to such arguments and appeals). Hirschman shows how one can act loyally, creating surprising and productive relations between voice and exit. Thinking of Palin's exit in Hirschman's terms invites us to consider other recent actions by leading Republicans dealing with the widespread perception of the Republican Party as a failing operation--consider Arlen Specter, for example, and the chant of Rush Limbaugh and others that Republicans who don't follow the line should get out. Palin and Specter are exiting in very different directions, but perhaps Hirschman's perspective helps us to see their similarities.

See also:

Todd Purdum, "It Came from Wasilla," Vanity Fair, August 2009.

Maureen Dowd, "Now, Sarah's Folly," New York Times, 5 July 2009.

Video of the speech is here.

The photograph of Governor Palin is from her governor's web page.

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