Public servant/politician; the terms are interchangeable, right? Though customary to ‘hail to the chief’, public servants, including the president and vice-president, should have at the heart of their work the people’s interests, not their own. In a world where media, politics and celebrity go hand in hand, it is useful to remember that politicians are leaders, not media stars. It is one of the reasons Sarah Palin is so insulting to the history of women and the United States presidency.
Every woman who has run for president has had an uphill battle to be perceived as a “serious” candidate. Instead of a servant leadership approach to governing, Sarah Palin quit the governorship, installed a television studio in her living room for her new Fox television gig and has toured the country selling her gossipy book about her vice presidential experience. More reality-show contestant than presidential contender is the rhetorical message of Sarah Palin, and it is anything but serious.
In 1964 Margaret Chase Smith ran for president. In her announcement speech she laid out her arguments carefully. She proudly asserted: “I would be pioneering the way for a woman in the future–to make the way easier–for her to be elected President of the United States.” In 1972 Shirley Chisholm made a bid for the presidency. She said, “American women must stand and fight–be militant even–for rights which are ours.” When Pat Schroeder got into the presidential race in 1988 she wanted to “offer nothing more than honesty and common sense to Americans.” She offered a “rendezvous with reality” that she hoped would become ”rendezvous with opportunity.” In 2000 Elizabeth Dole, who the press widely called the first “serious” presidential candidate (her predecessors would beg to differ, I’m sure) wanted to “call America to her better nature.” And in 2004, Carol Moseley Braun, earnestly, though briefly made a presidential bid to “give you an America as good as its promise.” Each of these women received less press coverage than any of their male counterparts running for president. Often the coverage was more seeped in detail about their appearance than their message and several of them were described as more vice presidential potential than presidential material. Despite all of that, they were paving the way for a future woman presidential candidate simply by their serious determination in the race. None of these women left presidential politics to become celebrities. Margaret Chase Smith continued to represent Maine. After retiring from political life, she commented that her greatest contribution to the country’s well-being was her consistent stand against bigotry and injustice. Shirley Chisholm continued to serve in the House of Representatives. Pat Schroeder returned to her work in the House until she retired in 1996. Elizabeth Dole served one term as a senator from North Carolina. Carol Moseley Braun campaigned for John Kerry and is now a businesswoman in Chicago.
Most recently Hillary Clinton campaigned until she had no choice but to accept her defeat for the Democratic nomination. Now she serves as Secretary of State.
None of these women cashed in on their candidacies. When more Americans differentiate celebrity from public servant, they will feel duped by Sarah Palin’s Paris Hilton-like public persona.