Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sarah Palin and George Sheehan

Given that Sarah Palin is loath to read a newspaper (1), we probably should pay close attention when she tells us what she does read. In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Palin confessed that she found C.S. Lewis "very, very deep" and also expressed admiration for the works of runner turned "philosopher" George Sheehan. She described him as "Very inspiring and very motivating. He was an athlete and I think so much of what you learn in athletics about competition and healthy living that he was really able to encapsulate, has stayed with me all these years."

You know by now that whenever politics and sports intersect, I have to take a look; so I checked out a couple of Sheehan's books and here are a few gems:

In his book Personal Best, Sheehan argues that each runner can achieve excellence. Being excellent (Wayne's World reference?)--not winning--is the most important thing. And, in a passage reminiscent of a Stephen Colbert segment (without the irony), he maintains that everyone can be a hero, primarily through athletic self-realization. "Save for war, there is no better theater for heroism" (9). My thought: In this election cycle, if you want to be heroic but don't want to be shot at, play basketball.

Later he writes, "We runners tend to regard ourselves as born-again heroes and saints. If runners possess anything to a greater degree than endurance, it is self esteem" (11). My thought: Palin has this down pat--born-again and sure of herself.

Writing about reading, Sheehan encourages life-long learning but counsels his reader to shy away from novels. "Not novels . . . We find memorable people in these books but few memorable thoughts" (156). He ultimately concludes that we should not rely too heavily on what we read, but should instead "think for ourselves" (157). My thought: see below.

Finally, in his book This Running Life he suggests that every day represents another phase in the constant struggle to improve. My thought: Palin should take this to heart and quit trotting out the same lines at every stump speech. It would be one thing if they were true (e.g. "I told the federal government thanks, but no thanks." I suppose that's true... except for the "but no thanks" part of it).

I do avoid this kind of book for the most part... I like to keep my food down. That said, I do think Sheehan is probably one of the better motivational writers that I have read... Let me finish by commenting on Sheehan's comment on novels and reading.

Sheehan, unlike Palin, is himself fairly well-read: he quotes Emerson, Montaigne, C.S. Lewis, Ortega--but, true to his word, no novels. And this is one of the most disquieting aspects to me: Palin is running for national office but seems entirely unable to handle nuance. Novels are novels, not because they don't have clear ideas, but because the ideas they express are too complicated to spell out in a self-help book and are better communicated in shades of gray.

The fact that Palin proclaims C.S. Lewis to be "very deep" is in itself troubling. In most of his works, Lewis is attempting to take a fairly complicated and abstract idea (Christian salvation) and make is simple. But even C.S. Lewis understood that some messages were better communicated in novels (Narnia)... albeit fairly simple ones.

JFK said that his favorite book was Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir, a novel about a young man who struggles against class and political barriers on his way to becoming a grade-A hypocrite before finally having a change of heart and being sincere (just prior to his execution). It is a novel with multiple story lines, political intrigue, personal discovery, nastiness, hate, kindness, love, manipulation, corruption, death, etc. It is a novel that does not gloss over human nature's darker side.

As a national politician, I want someone who can deal with the unseemly, unclear, nasty, beautiful world we live in. Sheehan writes that the "science of life gives predictable results." This may be true when it comes to running or self-realization, but it is not so clear when dealing with terrorist threats, Wall St. banks, or Russian oligarchs. Effective diplomacy requires analytical thinking and the ability to see the world as more than just good versus evil.

Obama, in contrast, enjoys works by Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare (particularly his tragedies).

What a candidate reads will obviously not guarantee a great president (or vice-president). But it at least suggests which candidate will have a better idea how to deal with the dimly-lit tangle of humanity and self-interest a president will have to confront every day.

(1)From her now infamous interview with Katie Couric:

Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
: What, specifically?
Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
Couric: Can you name a few?
Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.

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