Palin impresses as reformer

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Count me as one of those people initially shocked and disappointed by John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Her brief resume in government service caused me to think the choice was made on gender politics alone. But the more I learn about this fascinating leader, the more I like it.

At the top of her recommendations is that she doesn't appear the typical, ego-driven pol. Rather than "playing it safe" and snuggling up cozily with the powers-that-be, she proved herself in Alaska as governor and before that as head of the powerful Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to be the kind of person who speaks truth to power. Her credentials as a reformer are unquestioned. This matches her well with John McCain, and it underlines to me one of the central questions about Sen. Barack Obama.

In contrast to Palin (and McCain), Obama's track record is one of seeking to fly beneath the radar of any controversy, lest taking a firm position derails his chance for the next elected office. This is most revealed in the number of "present" votes made throughout his political career — and in his penchant for talking in broad generalities. In fact, his record of legislative achievement (in contrast to his political organizational achievements) appears to be calculatingly thin. This same failure to take leadership in difficult situations appears a hallmark in other areas, as well.

For example, with the information out already about the governor of Alaska, does anyone doubt that Sarah Palin would have handled the matter differently if her minister had spouted profanities and other slurs against the United States, rather than sitting quietly in the congregation and accepting the minister's political help when it was beneficial? Then distancing himself from same minister when it became politically expedient?

The hope is that a President Obama will finally be able to speak clearly, shedding aside the subterfuge of political gamesmanship and take positions for the good of the country — even when they are hard. But nothing in his past, besides the fact that he appears a highly intelligent and organized man, recommends him in this role. Instead, curiously, the man who has campaigned on a platform of "post-partisan politics" is likely to be the more partisan of the two potential leaders.

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I had the chance to meet both Senators Obama and McCain recently. Both were delightful. Obama is engaging, pleasant and charismatic. When he laughs, you want to laugh with him. McCain is smaller than expected, somewhat frail (his suit doesn't quite fit on his shoulders, in part because of the torture he survived decades ago), and wickedly funny. In fact, McCain's sense of humor was totally unexpected and incredibly endearing. Now that the conventions are nearing their end, the sprint to November begins. Is it too much to hope that the two will identify some areas where difficult decisions need to be faced — Social Security, for example — in a way that will help the next president, whoever that is, rather than simply seeking to jockey for political favor with this group or that?

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Another looming difficulty for the next president will be how to respond to a belligerent Russia. As those of you who know my background living and working in Moscow — as well as my wife's background in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia — the former Soviet Union remains a constant interest to me. Indeed, yesterday I saw my brother-in-law off to his home in Minsk, Belarus. He had spent much of the summer with us — when not working construction with Cape Girardeau-based Mac Con Co. in Arkansas — and we spent several hours talking about relations between America and Russia.

Several of our conversations revolved around America's historical tension, still alive and well, between isolationism, realpolitik and internationalism. To my brother-in-law, the idea of human rights being important in national policy seemed truly a foreign concept. Moreover, he related a grudging respect that whatever aggrandizes Russia or belittles America is somehow good, as perceived by his countrymen. It is an attitude fomented from the top and inculcated throughout the culture by Russia's anti-western government in its increasingly totalitarian control of all media there.

This bodes ill for the future, and the next president will surely be challenged with foreign policy dangers, no matter how much we may wish otherwise.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

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