By Richard Carreño
At first, she was knocked as a new-comer to big-league politics. Too inexperienced to be just a heart beat away from the Presidency. She fired back: No darling of the liberal media elite was she. She was just plain-folks Palin. A gun totin', moose shootin', pro-life hockey Mom, and, yes, with an unwed daughter who's five months pregnant. In other words, women of America, just like you.
She might just be right. At least, in mirroring an increasingly visible segment of American womenhood.
For the fact is Sarah Palin, a cocksure, low-brow, unintellectual, baby totin' Alaskan frontier woman looks alot more like many working single moms in the Lower Forty-Eight than those, on the East and West coasts, who scorn her as a under-educated rube. Where's the coon-skin cap? You know, the one Ben Franklin wore to the French Court as America's first down-homey.
Finally, the 800-pound gorilla is out of the cage. What really rankles America's educated, urbane (and urban) brie-and-Chablis crowd is the Palin is so plain, well, so plain common.
Let me introduce you to the 'C' word -- 'class' -- the one word in the American lexicon that's even better hidden in polite public discourse than 'race.'
We can talk about elites (read, media types, and what Richard Nixon used to call Harvard 'eggheads,' and his disgraced vice-president, Spiro Agnew, referred to as 'nattering nabobs of negativism'). We can talk about the 'Middle Class' (anyone making less than $5-millon per annum, John McCain reckons). We can talk in code about the 'Disadvantaged' and the 'Under-Class' (read, 'welfare queens' and, shush, big-city slum dwellers).
But we can't talk about 'class,' which is altogether different than racial and economic distinctions.
In the United States, class status -- and where you fit in -- means where you were educated, your vocabulary and diction, where you live, how you dress, how professional your job, your family pedigree, how clubbed-up you are -- and in peculiar American twist (the Brits don't care as much about this as we do) how much money you make. You know, the stuff we never talk about.
But meet the criteria, however sub rosa, and you've got class cachet, or, as the Spanish like to say, mixing status with style, 'duende.' It doesn't mean you're the richest, smartest, or the most powerful. (Patrician George H.W. Bush has it; 'W' doesn't). But it does mean that you are a paid-up member of the Eastern Establishment, based in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and in outposts in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Sorry, Sarah. According to this account, you're strictly take-me-home for $1.99 working-class.
Bill Maher called her, ouch!, a 'stewardess.'
A friend from Boston, in a recent e-mail, labelled her a 'red-neck' with children with 'trailer-park trash names,' Piper, Track, Trig, Bristol, and Willow. That smarts.
David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, weighs in, 'Many liberals [he dubs them 'coastal condescenders' at another point] claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant.'
Given 'Barracuda' Palin's opinions on abortion, church-going, book-banning, gays, guns, and gutting fish, start spraying the Raid. If only her nick-name were 'Binky'?
Former Penn professor Paul Fussell once took a rare look at American status and its little-discussed markers, and came up with rungs on the social climbing ladder that normally don't get associated with the more well-worn, better trod economic version. He even uses the designation 'proletarian,' a term that's enough to warm the cockles of Marx's heart.
In his text, Class, Fussell saw a status system -- not divided by Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, Lower Middle and Lower, as usually spelled out -- but by Top out-of-sight, Upper, Upper middle, Middle, High proletarian, Mid-proletarian, Low proletarian, bottoming out with Destitute and Bottom out-of sight.
According to Fussell's reckoning, it's fairly easy to pigeon-hole political contenders. Even today's crop, despite no obvious Locust-Valley lockjaw blue-blood like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the fray.
Joe Biden gets marks for living in Greenville, Delaware, home of the DuPonts. He dresses well. Is well-travelled. Marks off for graduating from Syracuse University and being born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Rank: Upper middle.
McCain is a graduate of the Episcopal School in Washington, was a hard drinker when younger, was an Episcopalian before he was born-again. He gets marks for schooling, drinking, and Episcopaling. Points off for getting born again. Rank: Upper Middle. Interestingly, Cindy McCain is only 'Middle.' Too much jewelry and conspicuous clothing, $300,000 worth it was estimated during one GOP Convention night.
The Obamas, on the other hand, are both Upper middle -- no little thanks to their style (her fashion sense), linguistic abilities and accents (not a trace of Richard Daley's Chicago), education (an Ivy hat-trick with Harvard, Princeton, Columbia), and 'appropriate' values. In other words, they're PLU ('People Like US'). One day, the Obamas might even be Upper -- at least when they dump those pesky student loans.
Palin is a whole other kettle of fish on Fussell's Status-'O-Meter. A graduate of University of Ida-where? Children with, yes, let's face it, declassee names, and five of them, no less. A hockey mom? A mid-western twang for an accent. The eye-glasses. OMG, the big hair! A sister who runs a gas station. There's no end to it. One plus: A semi-employed husband. Rank: High proletarian.
According to Fussell, status markings are all around us; Americans -- untutored in such things -- just aren't used to recognizing them.
'The novelist John O'Hara made a whole career out of probing into this touchy subject, to which he was astonishingly sensitive. While still a boy, he was noticing that in the Pennsylvania town [Pottsville] where he grew up, "older" people did not treat others as equals,' Fussell makes note.
The late Nancy Mitford, in a classic language study of British and American English, noted how vocabulary decides class membership. Her glossary -- divided between 'Upper' words (U Words) and Non-Upper words (Non-U words) --was glib and hardly science, but it got a knowing nod from those in the know, obviously the U's.
So, the next time you hear McCain, Obama, Palin, or Biden hold forth, turn on your U-meter and check for these:
Non-U versus U
Chaise lounge/Chaise longue
Well, you get the idea....
My favorite snob, the late British MP Alan Clark,once delivered, to my mind, at least, one of the cruelest digs in political campaigning. Clark charged that his honorable opponent was 'the kind of chap who has to buy his own furniture.' The implication being, of course, that, unlike Clark and those in his lineage (his father was Lord Kenneth Clark), his opponent could not count on hand-me-down antiques to furnish his home.
But don't count on Joe Biden (Upper middle) to deliver that zinger against Sarah Palin (Upper proletarian) in next month's vice-presidential debate.
(This article, in a different form, first appeared at BroadStreetReview.com).