TEL AVIV - It was in the taxicab this morning that it finally struck me about Sarah Palin.
I get it. I get that millions of Americans have a crying need for someone to stand up and say the things that Sarah Palin has been telling them.
I get that many, many Americans are fed up with big government and shame in patriotism and energy dependence and media condescension. I recognize that there are many on the right who are galvanized by a woman addressing the nation in condemnation of gun control and abortions. It's clear that many in the heartland and even on the Blue State coasts have been waiting years to hear someone take a take-no-prisoners verbal lash to Beltway waste and liberal political correctness and, by implication, to cultural pluralism and tree hugging and the very mention of the word Washington.
But it wasn't until I got into the taxicab this morning, that I realized what the American voter truly faces this November.
The radio was playing a clip from her ABC News interview, the one in which she was asked about the Bush Doctrine.
The problem was not that she was unacquainted with the doctrine. Millions of Americans are unacquainted with it.
The problem is that Sarah Palin was also asking those millions of Americans to put her first in line for the most important position in humankind.
True, the Bush Doctrine, and the National Security Strategythat contains it, are not a one-sentence, easy to digest credo, and the doctrine is open to many interpretations. Sarah Palin had none of them.
This, despite the doctrine's contribution to the fact that America is at war, and that Governor Palin's own son is at war. This is the doctrine that underpins the policy that has had Americans fighting in Iraq two years longer than America fought World War II. And this is the doctrine which will serve as a guide if there is to be war in Iran.
The problem is that John McCain and Barack Obama and Joe Biden have spent years studying the assumptions and the foundations and the consequences of the Bush Doctrine. Governor Palin has not.
Yet Sarah Palin was proud of having had no hesitations, no reservations, no qualms about accepting John McCain's offer to share the national ticket. It was a matter of ideology with her.
"I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink.
"So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate."
The question about the Bush Doctrine was not a trick. It was not a trivial point designed to make Sarah Palin look bad. It is the summary of a worldview that has guided American foreign and military policy for the seven years since September 11, 2001. It is America's formal explanation for sending Americans into harm's way. It is America's explanation to the world for what America has done.
Even my Israeli cab driver, a non-American through and through, knew more about the Bush Doctrine than Sarah Palin. And that is cause for serious concern.
The cabbie knew, for example, that the doctrine provided for anticipatory self-defense, and pre-emptive strikes to forestall hostile acts even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack.
"This would never have happened in Israel, ever" remarked a journalist friend, referring to the choice of Governor Palin, whose credentials in the realms of foreign policy, statecraft and the military are limited in the extreme.
With irony bordering on the painful, the journalist added, "Sarah Palin has restored my faith in Israel."
Israel is far from a model of good government, wise policymaking and exemplary leaders. But here, at least, voters and the politicians they make it their business to know inside and out, relate to politics not as if it were a spectacular bowl game or a reality show.but for what politics really is, in America and Israel both: a matter of life and death.
What, at root, are Americans looking for when they see Sarah Palin? A reprieve from their disappointment over elected officials? The prospect of cleaning house and overhauling a wasteful and ineffective Federal bureaucracy? Does she have what it takes to protect and rebuild an American slipping from the First World to the Third?
Or is Sarah Palin, in the end, a diversion, a curiosity, that most pressing of contemporary American needs: an entertainer?
We have little time to make a decision. We have heard McCain and Obama on the campaign trail for what seems like forever. And Biden has been a national figure for decades. Sarah Palin has less than 50 days to prove that she has the intelligence, the humility, the learning ability, and the wisdom to assume the burdens of the commander in chief. We have less than 50 days to learn about her.
George Bush, who spoke incessantly about leadership before his election, has had more than seven years to prove himself a leader, and managed to prove conclusively only that he was not.
This is what is truly frightening about Sarah Palin. There is something in the smugness, the faith-based rigidity, the dismissiveness, that suggests that once again, we may have a national leader who knows better how to divide than to rule.
True, for millions of people, Sarah Palin has lanced a cultural boil. They feel anger, betrayal, and a profound alienation from the basic institutions of American life. The American dream is receding from them. She has given voice to the ache in their hearts, and, as such, has lifted their spirits.
Sarah Palin has given a voice to people who, even with an ostensibly fundamentalist Republican president in the White House, feel disenfranchised. It is not their Supreme Court, not their Congress. She has done a service for people unhappy with the America that they see. But that does not qualify her to be president.
Governor Palin has suggested that the special interests and superfluous bureaucrats are scared of her and the reforms she and John McCain intend to undertake. One hopes she's right. But what is certainly scary about Sarah Palin is how little that voters know about her, and in particular, how much she herself recognizes that she needs to learn.
Asked during the interview if she had the ability and the experience to serve as president of the United States, she replied without hesitation, without reservation, without contemplation - and without knowing, on a profound level, what that would, in fact, entail. "I'm ready."
Here is the answer that is truly frightening. It lets us know that the nation may be in danger of electing another leader bearing the most profound of George Bush's shortcomings: blindness to one's own shortcomings.
Blindness, that is, to the breadth and depth and height and shape of what one does not know. Say what you will about Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary knew an unknown unknown when he saw one. Sarah Palin, for whom appearance is understandably significant, has one in her mirror.
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