Among the political figures to whom Sarah Palin has been compared, Spiro T. Agnew is conspicuously absent. This is unsurprising from the GOP's perspective, as he resigned in disgrace because of the basest forms of corruption during his pre-VP political career (it's a common misconception that he went down with Watergate, but he was a felon without Nixon's help). On the other hand, his absence from the narrative is suprising given that Palin's nomination is a spitting image of Agnew's out-of-nowhere appearance on the national scene four decades ago. The two politicians are eerily similar and the scenario surrounding their nomination is downright identical: choose a neophyte who isn't qualified to run a kindergarten class and then turn the election into a pitched moral battle pitting Good Reg'lar Folk against that condescending liberal media.
Karl Rove has accurately opined that the Obama campaign forgets that its opponent is McCain, not Palin. That said, McCain needs to remember that he is running against Obama. Without that reminder, one would walk away from this race with the impression that he is running against the media. Scoring points off the tsunami of criticism directed at Palin is the campaign's newest strategy. But they didn't invent it.
This technique was pioneered by none other than Spiros Anagnostopoulos, spiritual godfather of the Liberal Media narrative (see Tom Lehmann's "The eyes of Spiro are upon you" from The Baffler). He was the suprise choice as Nixon's running mate after just 18 months as the Governor of Maryland. Before that his political experience consisted of four years as a shockingly corrupt mayor. Sound familiar yet? Like Palin, the Nixon campaign used its nominee as little more than a prop to inflame populist sentiments about "liberal elites" of whom the media are the living, omnipotent embodiment.
"I'm so Greek, it hurts."
The cultural myth of the liberal media was in its infancy in the 1960s and its proponents loved how Agnew was greeted with incredulity, sarcasm, and open hostility. How, the media wondered, can this corrupt hack with zero experience be a heartbeat away from the White House? Relying on every tired trick from Huey Long-style anti-intellectual populism, the GOP used this hostility to its advantage. It gave Agnew a believable martyr complex and plenty of appeal among empathetic voters. Attacking Agnew for his ignorance and inexperience was an attack on the Average Man. The conservative Southern voters Nixon so badly wanted had no trouble identifying with Spiro: "We too hate those know-it-alls, those east coast elites, those college professors who tell us we're wrong when we lynch negroes and mandate creationism."
Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson is the McCain campaign's effort to reanimate Spiro's corpse. In the interview, Palin was unable to answer a question about the Bush Doctrine because…well, she doesn't know what it is. With five years' teaching experience at a Big Ten school, my experience is that the average college sophomore can explain it. That someone who expects to be the VP cannot is front-page news, right? No, the story from that interview was not "PALIN UNABLE TO ANSWER HIGH SCHOOL-CALIBER FOREIGN POLICY QUESTION." The story is the media itself: "LOOK HOW MEAN CHARLIE GIBSON WAS TO OUR QUEEN." Palin must have looked bad because the media made her look bad, not because she doesn't know her ass from a tea kettle. That is Spiro's legacy: the story is not that a woman who wants to be one step from Commander in Chief is thunderingly stupid and has an infantile grasp of basic foreign policy concepts (no wonder all those reporters on her plane aren't allowed to talk to her). The story is that Charlie Gibson sneered at her. Of course the voters McCain-Palin is targeting can empathize – they too are ignorant of facts and details, they too have received that sneer. Thus a vote for McCain is a bold act of rebellion, an ego-boosting "fuck you" to the fancy book-learnin' crowd. No "damage control" is necessary – the whole point is for Americans who don't know shit to bond with one of their own.
Agnew is watching this from his recliner in hell and smiling. He channels Tom Joad, reminding all of his fellow Republicans: Wherever the media embarrass a talentless right-wing hack, I'll be there. Wherever two or more gather in my name, searching for ways to divert attention from lousy candidates, I'll be there. Wherever "regular folk" flip on Fox News in search of a candidate who reminds them of themselves – biased, ignorant, provincial in the extreme, and full of opinions unsupported by facts but which feel true – I'll be there.