political convention

political convention

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sarah Palin's Midnight Bus Ride

Sarah Palin’s recent bus tour of historical sites may be best remembered for her imaginative re-telling of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. According to Palin, Revere took to his horse and hung his lanterns  to warn the British that it would be a bad idea to mess with the people who put on the Tea Party in Boston Harbor. “Hey, you're not going to take American arms, you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons individual private militia that we have,” Palin was quoted as saying.

Like most Americans, Palin fails to recognize that the events of the American Revolution and many other incidents in our history are more complicated than they seem at first glance.  
She probably remembered the myth of Revere’s ride and then in a panic tried to fill in the blanks with facts of her own.  Should she be punished for that?

Palin encountered a similar problem when she retold the story of George Washington and the cherry tree at the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington, DC.   As a snotty little boy George had chopped down the tree as a prank.  Later, under threat of corporal punishment, he demonstrated high moral character by confessing to his father and taking full responsibility.  This is the myth that everyone knows.  But Palin thought the story was incomplete. In her version, Washington was actually an adult and he and his troops had cleared a whole orchard of cherry trees.  They used the wood to make rafts so they could clandestinely cross the Potomac to the District of Columbia to prevent the British from burning down the White House.

Palin also clarified the historical record while visiting Washington’s National Museum of American History. She viewed a number of America’s most revered historical treasures, including the original Star-Spangled Banner.  The tattered flag flew over an American fort that was being attacked by the British.  Palin reminded a group of thrilled onlookers that the flag had inspired a famous composer to write “God Bless America,” which later became the national anthem. Palin also saw Lincoln’s top hat and Theodore Roosevelt’s Teddy Bear.  She had no comment except to ask why they were not kept in the same display case. 

When stopping in Philadelphia, Palin warmly recalled another American hero, Benjamin Franklin.  As a boy, she noted, the precocious Franklin had invented the printing press, which later allowed him to create America’s first tabloid newspaper.  Reporters working under his direction uncovered the Jefferson scandal in which the third president confessed to fathering a child out of wedlock.  A tearful Jefferson told a press conference how badly he felt for the pain he had caused his family and took full responsibility. Palin also recalled that Benjamin Franklin had worked with his pal Voltaire to discover electricity.

To many cynics these historical interpretations reveal a critical shortcoming for a presidential candidate.  But Palin is correct in saying that for some recent presidents deep historical knowledge was unimportant.  For example, Ronald Reagan was known to confuse movie scenes with actual historical events and he used them to illustrate important points in his policy speeches.  George W. Bush was fond of expressions like “bring it on.” Though this phrase comes from a movie about high school cheerleaders, Bush saw it as a way of conveying American bravado in the face of terrorist threats.

Palin is thus right to discount criticism of her interpretations of history and myth.  In reality, it’s a minor public relations issue, which the American people will little note, nor long remember.  However, in case some of them do, Palin supporters have attempted to revise entries in Wikipedia about Revere’s ride to make the story coincide with Palin’s version.  No kidding. 

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