If you ever met Richard Nixon—I did, in the early 1990s—you'd remember this: he had a startlingly huge head, which sat low over his shoulders like a bobble-head doll without its spring. He was nearing 80 and, though he had not achieved the political redemption or inner peace he had sought for so many decades, he refused to abandon the role he lived for: man in the arena.
Life was a battlefield, even at a drop-by for a conference in a meeting room of the New York Hilton. Nixon surveyed the scene with his darting glances, smiled his nervous smiles. Fielding policy questions, his voice grew sonorous, his replies filled with erudition and edge. He knew—really knew—what he was talking about. That isn't to say he was admirable, or even likable: as president, he did his best to snuff out whole paragraphs of the Constitution. And yet, against my better judgment, I found his persistence brave and his presence sadly moving. He'd seen it all, the heights and depths. He'd done it all, for better or worse. (OK, for worse.)
There's a lot of talk around Washington that Sarah Palin is the reincarnation of Richard Nixon. I find myself feeling offended on the old man's behalf. It's like comparing a Shakespearean tragedy to a Glenn Beck rant. True, Palin brims with Nixon's flaws—the petty resentments, the political paranoia, the hunger to punish rivals—and there are those who see in her the potential for a Nixonian saga of revival in the aftermath of humiliation and ridicule. But she has none of Nixon's strengths or political experience or knowledge and could, potentially, be a nightmare for her party and the country. I don't know a single GOP operative who thinks she could win in 2012, no matter how flat Barack Obama may fall. And if she ever made it to the White House, it is not hard to imagine her doing as much damage by accident as Nixon did on purpose.
You could hear the sampling of old Nixon tracks in her July 26 farewell rap in Fairbanks: the fear of a distant "them"; the flag-draped threat aimed at the national media—the same media she rode to stardom and that she hopes to ride in a new book (out next spring), in TV gigs (the offers are piling up), and, of course, in a potential presidential campaign. She has an acute, Wasilla-bred feel for the ways in which middle-class exurbanites dread the rise of a polyglot, metropolitan America. "She's like Nixon in that way," says Roger Stone, a consultant who began his career as a Nixon foot soldier. "Like Nixon, 20 percent of the country will be with her forever."
That is where the comparison ends. Nixon could speak to and for the Yorba Linda grocer. But he was more complicated than that. He was "Old Iron Butt" at Duke's law school, and read and wrote all of his life in a futile effort to win the respect of the very intelligentsia that he feared (and secretly admired). If Palin possesses that kind of curiosity, no one has seen it. It is hard to imagine that all this time she has been masterfully concealing an astonishing intellect. People tend to forget that Nixon was a phenom. By Palin's current age—she is 45—he had been a high-profile member of the House and Senate, and President Eisenhower's globe-trotting vice president for six years. Palin … well, you know her résumé. And Nixon knew the country. He ate rubber chicken from coast to coast for decades, and knew local politics in granular detail. Palin, by contrast, has spent most of her life in a state that calls the rest of the world "Outside." And she had not seen much of it until the McCain campaign gave her a plane and $150,000 in sightseeing duds.
To rise from your own ashes is arduous. It requires frank admission (at least to yourself) of your political weaknesses. In Nixon's case, that meant jettisoning the divisive, Commie-baiting "Tricky Dick" and repackaging himself as a seasoned statesman. Palin's problem is simple enough: too much of the country (57 percent in a Washington Post poll) thinks she's ignorant or dumb, or both. Friends say there is more to her than meets the eye, and that her book, written with an experienced coauthor, will show it. But carefully edited riffs aren't enough. To even approach credibility she must study the country and the world, and prove she understands them beyond the soundbite level. Assuming that she is up to it—am I a cynic for assuming she is not?—she must then convince us of a breadth and depth so impressive that it overrides the nagging fact that she couldn't stomach a single term as a governor. In short, she has to de-Fey herself. The place to look for help is obvious. The stage manager who broadcast the "New Nixon" to the world in 1968 was young man named Roger Ailes. Now, of course, Ailes is the mastermind of Fox News. If he takes her in, and if she studies hard, then in a few years time Palin just might be able to say, with conviction, that as president she would be … just like Nixon.