Sometimes Stanley Fish’s contrarian nature leads him to ridiculous impostures…as in his most recent “blog” entry at the New York Times (ten years ago we would have just called it a column…and been correct). The gist of this article is that, gee, maybe we should just take Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford at their word – the meaning of Palin’s resignation is what she said, that it’s been emotionally upsetting and “not what [she] signed up for”; and that Sanford’s endless set of speeches wasn’t political but a “cri de coeur.”
First: taking Sarah Palin at her word is something so perilous I doubt even she does it. Second: apparently she’s even more naive than we thought, and less prepared for office-holding, if it’s actually true that she believes she “didn’t sign up” for partisan invective, late-night comics’ joke fodder, and the general rough elbows of pundits and bloggers. I’m sorry – but in entering the national political stage, that is exactly what she signed up for. As for Sanford: okay, okay, we get it – he’s in love with his Argentine swan (who doubts it?).
The problem is, even if we do believe them and take them at their word (I’m more inclined to do so with Sanford), in both cases they’re stunningly irresponsible and hypocritical. Palin has not exactly been a pastel wallflower in hurling invective at politicians and politics she doesn’t like – and Sanford, of course, notoriously (“notoriously” now anyway) voted to impeach Bill Clinton over his predations against Monica Lewinsky’s wardrobe. But nothing Palin has said makes much sense or mitigates the fact that she’s abandoning the office to which she was elected, in the midst of a national crisis – and Sanford, never mind the serial lying, the rumored illicit use of state funds, and how the hell his wife hasn’t kicked him to the curb and down the drain…Sanford just plain disappeared, without telling anyone. Playing hooky (for whatever reason) might be raffishly charming in an adolescent…but not in a governor.
Finally, though: why the hell is Fish defending the use of elected office as a platform for emotional venting? Was the description of Palin’s or Sanford’s position altered to include turning the governor’s chair into a shrink’s couch? Talk to a friend, or a priest, or a bartender or something. I’m tired of this notion that we should judge (or pay much attention to, beyond the extent it’s relevant to ability) emotions in public figures. Who cares which candidate the populace would rather have a beer with? The esteemed senator, representative, governor, or other high elected official is not going to be draining a cold brewski with you – and whether you’d actually have a good time if he or she did, or whether you’d be bored, annoyed, offended, or anything else…all of that ought to be utterly irrelevant to whether that politician can do the job we elected that politician to do.
And pretty clearly, resigning halfway into one’s term and disappearing into thin air (whether that of the Appalachian trail or the wilds of Argentina, coast or more interior regions…) is not part of the job description.
At bottom Fish seems to want to believe that we have no right to imagine that politicians often, or nearly always, act with political motivation…but politics is a politician’s native environment, just like water to a…oh hell, just realized what a horrible pun I narrowly averted there.
I seriously doubt either Palin or Sanford will ever be president. And I have doubts whether even Palin will run. But will she end up with a massive book contract? Or a talk-show gig? I wouldn’t doubt it for a second…and whether she’s consciously angling for such a reward or not, her career is not marked by a lack of ambition or self-interest: quite the contrary. It’s only reasonable to assume that that much, at least, has not changed.