No republic, not even our exceptional one, can survive without virtuous citizens.
On July 3 when Sarah Palin announced from her Wasilla home that she would step down as Governor, we got a glimpse of a person none of us had seen before: this remarkable woman, nothing less than a phenomenon, always unflappable now seemed wounded and shaken. Five simple words were particularly haunting: "...and it's not so comfortable."
One of the most famous women in the world, Sarah Palin relinquished state power in the simplest of settings. It was obviously not comfortable, nor easy. However we define Palin, as frontier feminist, movement conservative or middle class populist this will always stand as her finest hour. It might not have been her finest performance, but it crystallized in a moment the very essence of virtue. It was Sir Thomas More resigning as Lord Chancellor and George Washington returning to Mount Vernon. It showed how rare virtue has become in our politics. It shows why we adore Sarah Palin and why we need her. And it explains why, even without office, she has become the most important political figure in America.
Of all the attributes we fix to her, charisma, fearlessness, wit, and most recently to our delight, formidable polemicist, we should remember that she entered national life in Dayton, Ohio as the enemy of politics as usual and a champion of the politics of virtue.
She sold the state's private jet as governor, brought property tax relief as mayor and resigned from appointed office when necessary. We should remind her vacuous, raging, class-obsessed critics that the governorship was not the first office she "quit". Her reputation of "quitter" is one we should celebrate and demand that other politicians emulate. For she hardly quit as Ethics Commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for venal or trivial reasons. She quit when she found her office so ripe with corruption that she was rendered ineffective as a moral leader.
The question her political biography begs is why don't more politicians resign? Why didn't Ted Kennedy creep into a hole after Chappaquiddick? Why doesn't Robert Byrd resign, clearly too feeble to hold office effectively? Isn't fifty-four years in office enough for John Dingle? Hasn't Mark Sanders learned how to say adios? And how about Bill Clinton, and John Ensign and Charlie Rangel, and on and on.
Sarah Plain speaks quite often about the way she is "wired" for politics. This means she can appear unwearied day after day to intoxicate average Americans with a stump speech. It means too, that she takes an oath of office very seriously. If ethics reforms boomerang to neutralize her administration, she has the moral courage to step down. She swore an oath to serve her constituents, and when she could no longer fulfill its requirements she resigned. No, it was not very comfortable but it was very moving and humbling to watch. "What is an oath but words we say to God", wrote Robert Bolt in "A Man for All Seasons."
Sarah Palin and virtue and God. We should take the Governor at her word when she cites faith and family -- in that order -- as her guides in life. I try to imagine a forty-four year old woman, at the height of her power, influence and popularity finding herself pregnant. Not only pregnant but carrying a trisomic child. This was probably something not very comfortable, and certainly there was an easy way out. But Sarah Palin didn't choose it. She would say that we have more to learn from special needs children than they have to learn from us. Surely this episode and many others show we have more to learn from Sarah Palin than she has to learn from us.
Ultimately, virtue is the result of recognizing evil and ensuring that it does not prevail over good. It's a simple formulation, but who in politics is audacious enough to speak in such stark terms? Sarah Palin has, with world-shattering results.
In her first explosive Facebook entry into the health care debate, she pointed out that "death panels" were the logical consequence of the government rationing of health care. And that such rationing was "downright evil." There were health care policy wonks galore, and Medicare and Medicaid experts by the droves who offered endless technical details about the health care bill. But only Palin distilled the debate to its fundamental moral core. No mere politician can create a phrase so mythic, that a national policy debate becomes redefined almost overnight. In its moral force "death panels" will be enshrined in our political lexicon as definitively as Churchill's Iron Curtain was over sixty years ago.
America has always done well, when its leaders recognize and call out evil when it threatens. Ronald Reagan's evocation of the Evil Empire and George W. Bush's citation of the axis of evil stiffened our spines for the coming challenges.
Sarah Palin has too, and not a moment soon.