Double standards are not entirely in the eye of the beholder. They have an objective existence in language and manners; we recognize their potency even as we try to evade their grip. If hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, a double standard is the shelter that prejudice offers to privilege.
Has a double standard actually worked against Sarah Palin, or has it worked in her favor? Suppose Barack Obama had a 17-year-old daughter who was found to be five-months pregnant and not married to the man who did it. Would Obama and his family be shown the keenness of sympathy and the warmth of fellow-feeling that Sarah Palin has evoked?
Because the public stories came alongside the private, the sudden emergence of unpleasant details about Governor Palin's official habits allowed her to be cast as a victim of "the media." But the facts emerged the way they did only because the McCain campaign knew so little about their nominee; and thanks to the haste of the choice, the country scarcely knew more. Sarah Palin has the ingratiating, surprised and friendly air of someone used to being liked; but her self-image has nothing to do with the record of her service in Alaska, or with her obvious penchant for intrusiveness and petty displays of willfulness. This covers her experiment with mass resignation as a test of loyalty, and her quest for ad hoc powers to censor the holdings of a town library. Palin couldn't keep her hands off the progress of a case against an Alaska state trooper, a case from which, because of the family connection, any fair-minded magistrate would simply have recused herself.
It is fair to concede that Governor Palin has had little time to develop. She herself can hardly know, yet, what is best and what is worst about her political character. But arming their well-placed nominee with the hunting license of the innocent and the persecuted, the McCain team took advantage of her first night before the nation to get in a low hit at Barack Obama. "I guess," they had her say, "a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities." The injury was none the subtler for being a slander of omission. With those two words, community organizer, they zeroed out Obama's eight years as state senator in Illinois.
But there was more to it than that. Why did her words send the Republican crowd into an ecstasy of hoots and raucous laughter? For them, "community organizer" is code for rabble-rouser. The phrase, at one stroke, took down Obama from the legitimate world of Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell and put him back where they think he belongs, down there with the street scrappers and the demagogues, Sonny Carson, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson in the early days, all those hustlers. The idea of Obama as hustler had been tried earlier and with impunity by David Brooks, in a column that called him Fast Eddie Obama, after Fast Eddie Felson, the character played by Paul Newman in The Hustler.
Race is in this election. It never was far away. And the election will be decided to a large extent by the number of non-political white people -- people who hate what George W. Bush has done to America, but for reasons they can't easily articulate to themselves -- who can rise above race and vote for a black man. Those are the numbers that the Rove-McCain machine are determined to keep low.
So they are sandbagging him from both sides. Low as a rabble rouser, high as a messiah; lazy and vain like a rock star, reckless and provocative like a street politician: shining with the vulgar shine of celebrity. Said Palin, speaking from her script: "this is a man who has authored [sic: she means written] two memoirs but not a single major law or reform." There is no polite answer to the charge. People who don't read books are always relieved to be told that the author of a book should have been doing something else instead of writing.
Obama can be described as many things: U.S. senator, state senator, organizer, author, teacher of law. Maybe it is the last of these roles that he himself has underrated. For the sake of his campaign but also for the public good, he ought to revert distinctly now to the role of explainer. For, in the eighteen months of this long run, he has not attended sufficiently to a whole vast middle level of explanation. This level contains those concerns that hover somewhere between the word Change and the exact cost of prescription drugs.
He has not said clearly enough what was wrong, in principle, about the way the U.S. went into Iraq and what remains unacceptable about the reasons we give for staying there. Again, what is wrong with "unilaterialism?" -- a word Obama uses often, but that many people who hear it surely don't know the meaning of. Why should America not act alone as the National Security Strategy of 2002 said we would and as John McCain promises to go on doing?
Finally, what is the Constitution of the United States, and how have the new laws of the Cheney-Bush administration sapped and undermined the Constitution?
All of this work of explanation would convey a vivid idea, which till now we have had to take partly on trust, of what Barack Obama essentially is and what he isn't. People have a pretty fair idea, after all, of what John McCain is and is not. There are some things John McCain would never do. For example, he would never hesitate to take this country into war. Look at his recent statements on Iran and Russia: two more wars in the last six months, if McCain were president.
Are there things Obama would never do? If so, it is a matter best conveyed in the patient explanation that ought to occupy a serious campaign at a critical time. Perform that work in earnest, and you pass from being an organizer and a lawmaker to something rarer. It is the best imaginable answer to the slanders and the coarse contempt of the Republican Party of 2008.