Two thousand eight was a rather momentous year, not least for the startling cast of characters on its political stage. The starring role was played by a certain senator from Illinois, but his entrance into the spotlight really began in 2004. Launched in 2005, the Rail’s Person of the Year award has gone to the political figure who provided the most surprising drama of the year.
First up was Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, who suddenly brought the horrors of the Iraq War onto the floors of Congress; next was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who stood before the U.N. and smelled the “sulfur” of the devil known as George W. Bush; and last year’s honoree was Idaho Senator Larry Craig, for his “wide stance” in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport bathroom. Our 2008 honoree is responsible for similarly high drama—or, perhaps, low.
This year’s winner burst onto the scene on the last Friday of August, at the start of Labor Day Weekend. By unveiling his running mate at this time, the senator from Arizona showed that he would depart from the Bush Administration’s maxim, as stated by then White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in 2002, that “you don’t introduce a new product in August.” When it finally hit, the product to which Card referred, the Iraq War, sold well for about two weeks. Lo and behold, the Arizona senator’s new item would have a similar shelf life.
But what a fascinating new figure she was, personifying the core elements of the party’s base and putting them on window display. Here was a barracuda from Idaho who had come to power in an even more homogeneous state, and a hockey mom who shopped at Neiman Marcus. This family values conservative vowed to make her pregnant 17-year-old daughter marry a self-proclaimed “fuckin’ redneck” who said he “didn’t want kids.” And so on. In any case, the senator from Arizona likes to roll the dice, and for a moment he seemed to have thrown a seven (or even an 11). Maybe, just maybe, Hillary’s voters did want a woman on the ticket so bad that they would accept a minimally qualified candidate, one willing to take away a woman’s right to control her own body.
Yet by mid-September, the whole house of cards started to fall down. Questions arose about the governor’s misdeeds in her home state, as well as her ignorance of basic facts about the office for which she was now running. Then came Katie Couric and Tina Fey. The former, unlike Sean Hannity, asked the potential vice president unscripted questions, while the latter brilliantly spoofed the candidate’s incomprehensible answers, irritating accent, and annoying “folksy” mannerisms. (In fact, if this award were for “Impersonator of the Year,” Fey clearly would be it.) By late September, the bubble had burst, and it became clear that the Republican presidential candidate had rolled snake eyes.
The former mayor of Wasilla wasn’t done, however. She really wanted her fellow rugged mountaineers in Colorado to know that the opposing candidate had been “palling around with terrorists” (the joke in the spelling of that statement is just too easy…); a month later, the Democrats would win Colorado for only the second time in forty years. The governor also reminded the good folks in North Carolina that she and her running mate stood for the “real America,” and would represent the “pro-America areas of this great nation”; for the first time in 32 years, the Democratic ticket would soon win North Carolina. As the prospective vice president played the terror card and stoked the fires of mindless nationalism, threats of assassination against the African-American senator from Illinois increased. One candidate’s “patriotism” by another definition potentially amounted to treason. Indeed, the governor proved to be a candidate that only Bill Kristol could love.
In the end, the Arizona senator’s running mate helped sink the Republican ticket. For that impact alone, the governor of Alaska is hereby honored as The Brooklyn Rail’s Person of the Year 2008. Yet the frightening prospect that her book deal, celebrity, and the appeal she holds for her party’s base will keep her in the spotlight for years to come is why we must not refer to her by name. We can only hope it is soon forgotten.
Runners-up (or not really honorable mention):
A former governor from New York.
A retired minister from Chicago.
A would-be king from Wall Street.
A non-licensed plumber from Ohio.