This crazy election has more weird twists than "Trapped in the Closet." First Hillary seems invincible, then Obama wins Iowa, then Hillary weeps her way back into it, and McCain's dead in the water, except then he starts lugging his own bags, and people learn about Mormons, and somehow McCain wins—but, hey at least it's not Rudy—and then Hillary seems certain to lose but won't admit it, but then she finally does lose and some time later actually does admit it, and meanwhile her husband sulks, and Reverend Wright stews, and John Edwards, um, happens, and before you know it we've got a black nominee drawing crowds like the Beatles and history just pops off like firecrackers. And then we get Sarah Palin.
It helps to keep the backstory in mind when taking in Wednesday night's program at the Republican National Convention, the latest and almost-zaniest twist in the whole zany affair. Even after all the dazzling political theater of the last year or so, Palin's speech still had the power to astound—and mainly for reasons she intended. To say she is poised doesn't do her justice. Thrown onto the national stage with little time to prepare, she looked more at home up there than almost any of the elders who preceded her to a microphone, in either party's convention. And she's not keeping things safe and sedate. Like a certain obscure state senator four years ago, she has the knack that all really gifted performers have, of working the room on the fly, of drawing people to her.
Palin's speech was most potent when most personal. Lucky for her, a great deal of it was personal. She's pretty clearly running on biography. But with a family like hers, it's hard to imagine running on anything else. She is—again, like Obama—some peculiar mix of traditional American success story and envelope-busting freak show. At 44, she's running a state. But one of her children is—oh, let's skip the biography, you watched the speech too. How will the nation deal with somebody like this, a politician who addresses the multitudes while her six-year-old licks her palm to smooth the hair of the special-needs four-month-old right offstage? Just when you thought this election might start making sense, the country finds itself back in the uncharted part of the map, where the illustrations of dragons go.
Palin did a smooth job of bridging her story to the business at hand, i.e. getting elected. Though just about every speaker in the Twin Cities has found a way to present John McCain's military record as a grounds for making him president, no one has done so more effectively than she did with one golden line. "He's a man who wore the uniform of this country for 22 years, and refused to break faith with those troops in Iraq who have now brought victory within sight," she said. "As the mother of one of those troops, that is exactly the kind of man I want as commander in chief." But it's also telling that the only real energy dip in what was otherwise a raucously received speech came when she left biography behind and talked purely about issues. A little stumble on global oil security had the look of the trapeze artist sneaking a peek at the ground.
If the theatricality of Palin's speech pointed the way toward the future—after watching her and Obama, you have to wonder: are Generation X's political leaders just going to be way better at this stuff than their predecessors? —there were also times when her novelty fused with the thuddingly, depressingly familiar. Because with all due respect to whatever kid roughed up the young Barry Obama in Indonesia many years ago, he might never have been on the receiving end of a beatdown like this one. Palin last night revealed herself to be a culture warrior of the old school—a school that, alas, doesn't seem to be closed after all. From mocking his community organizing job—really? Social work is fair game now? —to taunting him about the "Styrofoam Greek columns" of his convention stage, she kept finding new and more vicious ways to abuse, and not just Obama himself: Small town folks, she said, "are always proud of America" —a not-so-subtle dig at his wife.
Now, I'm all in favor of a good political bloodletting. For the half hour or so before Palin took the stage, Giuliani did what he always does: firing off insults, making wisecracks, shamelessly spraying Rudyness all over the place. No matter how repellent you find the man or his message, it's hard not to enjoy how grotesque and delicious a show he puts on. But with Palin there's an edge that sounds new. While Obama is crafting a post-boomer politics by using his literary gift, life story, and golden tongue to bring people together, Palin, on the evidence presented so far, moves beyond boomer categories with her own original story, her own preternatural poise, and a method of political attack that is far snarkier and more up-to-the-minute than any you expect to hear coming from the mouth of someone who might very soon be the most powerful person on the planet. "What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet?" she asked of Obama. (For what it's worth, this is the exact angle that snark god Jon Stewart and his correspondents have been taking while mocking him lately.)
It's hard to guess how Palin's attacks sound outside the Xcel Center, off in those fiercely contested Ohio suburbs: Are voters who aren't Republican true believers loving the vitriol, or does it begin to sound obnoxious? Will Obama get flustered now that he's no longer the hottest, youngest story in town? And how much deeper in the insult barrel will Palin reach? There was no mention, for instance, of Obama's snoring. But as long as the post-facto vetters don't turn up something especially juicy, she's got time. And so does he. And while you'd have to be crazy to predict how this nutty election will turn out, I wouldn't be surprised if we find ourselves watching these two going at it for a long, long while.