Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska , I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.
I have deliberately refused to comment on the short, strange trip of Sarah Palin from hockey mom to Governor, because I don’t think that it’s relevant to the electoral debate. Whose resume is fatter, who has more sons in Iraq, who is more eloquent, smarter or snarkier is not the question here. Nor is it really who has the “experience.” There is no boot camp for would-be Presidents of the United States. Everybody learns on the job and some do it better than others.
But Governor Palin really struck a raw nerve with me in her taunting acceptance speech in St. Paul. Her assertion that being “a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have real responsibilities” was a funny, Stephen Colbert-like dismissal of Senator Obama’s first post-college gig. It was, not coincidently, also Colbert-like in its truthiness.
Being a community organizer is nothing like being a mayor. You don’t move with the power-brokers, you don’t preside at city council meetings. You go into neighborhoods you don’t know, and try to build trust from people who don’t come by it naturally. You are not “The Honorable,” you’re a nobody, an outsider who has to learn quickly to be seen as an insider or you are never going to get the job done. You listen to strangers’ problems and make them your own. You help them get in front of the mayors, city councils, senators and governors who have ignored them and the problems in their community. You learn to listen to all sides of an argument, you learn how power, formal and informal, is distributed in the microcosm in which you are now living. You help people find the resources, the inner strength and the courage to stand up against a political system that only thrives on despair, hopelessness and apathy. You have actual responsibilities, lots of them, for very little money.
I know. I’ve done it. It’s damn hard work.
Just because you’ve been a mayor or a governor or a senator does not make you qualified to be President. It is rather, the quality of your ideas, your ability to convince people to work together to solve problems, your leadership skills, and some indefinable inner fire that drives you to keep going against the odds to create change. Being a maverick or a mom is not assurance of success. Your ability to deliver is entirely wrapped up in your ability to make people believe that by working together they will help you deliver.
I don’t know if Sarah Palin will make a good Vice-President. I don’t know if she was a good PTA chair. I don’t know if she was a good mayor. I don’t even know if she’s been a good governor. But I do know what community organizers do. It’s a lot harder than it looks.
And I know well the powers and principalities that revile those who work among the poor, not for their own glory, but to help people solve their own problems.
Enough truthiness. Let’s have some truth.