This is an updated and expanded version of my latest Sunday newspaper column, plus an epilogue:
The rise of Sarah Palin inevitably prompts me to ponder the demise of meritocracy in America.
Never mind the fact that her presidential readiness is measured by the proximity of Alaska to Russia, or the fact that the McCain camp listed Ireland as one of her foreign visits until it turned out that her plane had merely refueled on Irish soil. I’m more interested in the simple test that she has twice flunked about her own state – and the fact that John McCain, using grade inflation, gives her an “A” anyway.
She stated on ABC News that Alaska produces “nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy.” The accurate energy statistic, according to the federal government, is 3.5 percent. She subsequently amended her boast, claiming during a stump speech that Alaska produces “nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of oil and gas.” Wrong again. The accurate oil and gas statistic, according to the feds, is 7.4 percent.
Yet none of this matters to McCain, and why should it? In America these days, we award everyone for merit, from the brilliant to the mediocre. Just as in Little League, everyone gets a trophy. It’s the ultimate in populist democratization. Which is why McCain insists, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, that Sarah Palin “knows more about energy than probably anybody in the United States of America.”
Palin, however, is merely the latest beneficiary in the national celebration of mediocrity, much like one of those early-round American Idol entrants who wins insta-fame for being Just Like Us. Lest we forget, the lame-duck administration in Washington has long been dumbing down the standards for public service, by seeking to elevate the ill-qualified to positions of authority.
I think first of Harriet Miers, tapped for the U.S Supreme Court by President Bush, who lauded her as “the best person I could find.” It turned out that Miers had penned exactly three legal articles (including a promotional story about some new bar association seminars), and that her most notable legal work had arguably occurred years earlier, when she handled the paperwork on Bush’s fishing cabin.
I think of Monica Goodling, who was tapped for a key post at the Justice Department – evaluating the performance of U.S. attorneys, and helping to fire those deemed insufficiently conservative – despite her scant prosecutorial experience, and her stint at a law school listed in the “fourth tier” (the lowest score) by the academic rankers at U.S News & World Report.
I think of George Deutsch, a 24-year-old NASA appointee who barred NASA scientists from talking publicly about global warming, and who ordered NASA’s web designer to append the word “theory” to every mention of the Big Bang. Not only did Deutsch have no science background, it also turned out that (contrary to his initial claim) he didn’t even graduate college. But his political work for Bush’s re-election campaign was deemed sufficiently meritorious.
I think of Claude Allen, the Bush domestic advisor who in 2006 pleaded guilty to shoplifting $850 worth of goods from Target. Allen had originally been tapped by Bush, three years earlier, for a federal appeals court judgeship, until it turned out that he had acted as lead counsel in a case exactly once, and had practiced law for only seven years – five years short of what the American Bar Association defines as the minimal qualification for a judicial nominee.
I think of real estate lawyer/developer Jim Nicholson, tapped by Bush to run the Veterans Administration even though he had no previous experience advocating for, or working with, military vets. He was, however, a former Republican national chairman. Nicholson wound up making his mark at the VA by vastly underestimating his wounded soldier caseload. In April 2005, he told Congress that he had all the money he needed; within months, he had to admit that the soldier tally from Iraq and Afghanistan had already exceeded his original estimate by 80,000, and that he needed more money – thus prompting a Republican congressman to complain that the VA’s performance “borders on stupidity.”
And I think of Michael Brown, whose creds to head FEMA were a mystery, unless one argues that his earlier tenure at the International Arabian Horse Association made him a good choice to aid distressed Americans. “Brownie” was not alone, however. Patrick Rhode, the acting deputy director, got his FEMA job after working as a Bush advance man. His previous experience had consisted of covering natural disasters as a local TV anchorman. Rhode is the FEMA guy who lauded the agency’s response to Katrina as “probably one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country’s history.” And I won’t even bother detailing the story of another Bush FEMA hire, a key guy in the Pacific Northwest, who, it turns out, had no emergency preparedness creds whatsoever; on the other hand, he had once run a coffee business, and he did have a college degree…from an unaccredited correspondence school.
So when I read up on Gov. Palin, and learned that she had tapped, as her state agriculture director, a former high-school classmate and real-estate agent with no management or government experience who nevertheless deemed herself qualified because of her longstanding affection for cows….well, my reaction was: Here we go again. (Palin had earlier taken good care of this classmate, Franci Havemeister, by appointing her to a job that allowed her to supervise a state-owned dairy – even though she reportedly had a direct financial stake in the dairy. She’d married into a family that depended on that dairy for its livelihood. In some states, at least, this would be known as a conflict of interest.)
I’ll readily stipulate that this strain of average-Joe populism has long been part of the national character; if you’ve seen the films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Dave, then you know what I mean. In Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart plays an aw-shucks westerner who comes to the Nation’s Capital as a clueless senator…and in no time he just cleans things right up. In Dave, the '90s comedy, Kevin Kline is an upstanding average Joe who takes over for the lookalike president, calls in his personal accountant to clean up the whole federal budget….and, sure enough, the two of them get it done, easy as pie. The message of these films was: Hey, anybody can do it. All expertise is equal.
But what works in a Hollywood script doesn’t quite click in real life. Some of the folks defending Palin’s ascendence are stretching their arguments too far.
For instance, in the pages of The Weekly Standard, the prominent conservative magazine, think tank scholar Steven Hayward contended last week that anyone who questions Palin’s fitness for the vice presidency is therefore guilty of something called “status bias.” As he argues, she is ready for the job right now because “another six years in the governor’s office isn’t likely to tell us anything we can’t already discern if we don’t let status bias get in the way.” He also wonders, “If we implicitly think uncertified citizens are unfit for the highest offices, why do we trust those same citizens to select our highest officers through free elections?” (I can answer that one: Because, hopefully, uncertified citizens will pick people who are smarter and more qualified than they are.)
One wonders how the Founding Fathers would view the demise of meritocracy. Alexander Hamilton insisted in the 76th Federalist Paper that our leaders “would be both ashamed and afraid” to elevate people whose chief qualification appeared to be “insignificance and pliancy.” But today Hamilton would probably be dismissed as an “elitist” who can’t relate to the average Joe’s apparent yearning for leaders who know just as little about the issues as they do.
So goodbye Hamilton, and hello Roman Hruska. The late senator from Nebraska is the guy who once defended an ill-qualified, ill-fated high court nominee by saying, “So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”
Hruska was ridiculed for these remarks. But that was so 38 years ago. Given the populist impulses that are running rampant today, he looks like a seer.
EPILOGUE: After the newspaper version of this piece made the rounds yesterday, in print and online, I was serenaded via email by hundreds of mediocrity celebrants from all corners of the nation. Not surprisingly, considering the tough challenge of defending mediocrity and specifically the Bush hiring practices, most of their arguments were similar in quality to the hoisted middle fingers typically employed by ticked-off motorists. I won’t repeat them here, because this is a family blog.
But one respondent truly stood out. Early yesterday morning, in his bid to defend Palin, he offered this: “Needless to say, history is replete with examples of men and women who took positions for which they had little training, from Napoleon to Albert Speer, who became great successes.”
That second name rang a bell. Albert Speer....oh, dear. Was this emailer really attempting to defend Palin by invoking a prominent Nazi? The Nazi who used his architectural training to stage the huge Hitler rallies during the ‘30s, who later took over the war-production machine and fed it with slave labor, who barely escaped being hung at Nuremberg?
I emailed the guy, just to make sure that I was reading him correctly. Turns out, I was.
His reply: “Well, my point was that when he took over the Ministry of Armaments that Speer knew nothing about the field, and ended up bringing the regime close to victory.”
Speer, Palin…anybody can run a country! What an argument. There's no better way for me to illustrate the dumbing down of America.