In her televised address to the Tea Party’s national convention at Nashville last weekend, 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin expertly zinged the Obama administration, only to subsequently commit a gaffe that neutralized the impact of her remark.
Alluding to the hope-and-change campaign theme that President Barack Obama had ridden to victory 15 months ago — and to recent upset losses by Democrats in major elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts — Palin had a question for Obama supporters. “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?” she shouted from the podium.
As a great line calculated to elicit loud huzzahs from tea partiers allegedly mad as hell about the sorry track record of both major political parties in running things in Washington, it accomplished the job. One could fairly picture Obama detractors high-fiving one another in living rooms and bars from coast to coast, and perhaps even a few anti-Palin liberals secretly smiling, off the record, in the privacy of their homes.
But minutes later, in a tightly controlled question-and-answer session with convention participants, Palin —who had just savaged Obama for his heavy reliance upon teleprompters in his speechifying — was caught on camera sneaking a peek at crib notes written on the plam of her left hand. Close-up shots of her hand later showed the words “energy, taxes, lift America’s spirits” written there.
For television’s late-night comedians and newspaper editorial cartoonists the incident was the equivalent of throwing red meat to a pack of wolves. At his daily press briefing at the White House, presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs fired back at Palin, showing reporters his own fleshy crib notes.
He had written “eggs, milk, bread” on the palm of his left hand as a reminder to pick up those staples to help get through the blizzard that had grounded Washington, Gibbs said. “Hope” and “change” were also listed, he explained, in case he might inexplicably forget his boss’s “hopey changey” approach to governing and veer from the party line in spinning reporters.
Palin’s put-down of the Obama operation was mindful of a takedown two decades ago by Texas state treasurer Ann Richards of Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan’s vice president at the time.
Delivering the keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Richards, who later became governor of Texas, took a shot at the privileged upbringing of Bush the elder. After listing alleged Bush shortcomings, she summed things up in her best prime-time Texas drawl. “Poor George,” she said. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Although many people may have believed the takeoff of the Miguel de Cervantes observation that not every man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth was a Richards original, it was not. According to the Web site www.phrases.org.uk, which traces the origin of famous phrases, it had been used previously by others. Until Richards’ citation, perhaps the most notable usage had come two decades earlier when a New York Times reporter wrote about Newbold Morris, the patrician commissioner of New York City parks who had recommended Central Park as a swell place for the city’s homeless population to spend the night.
Richards later said the comment came to her via comedian Lily Tomlin’s writing partner, Jane Wagner. But the feisty pol, known for her sharp tongue and great timing, delivered the line flawlessly, and her borrowing of the phrase did not much matter in the partisan hooting and carrying-on that followed. It was not the only caustic punch line she delivered that evening, but it is the sound bite that has endured in the public memory.
Which is how these things generally go. Chances are good that most details of Sarah Palin’s convention speech will not long endure. Chances are even better, though, that years from now an aging electorate will well remember the former governor of Alaska’s “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?” zinger, as well as the comic relief that her left-handed crib notes inspired.
Superficial on our part? You bet. That’s how we roll.