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The American Debate: Populism gone wild: Palin latest example of push to mediocrity

The rise of Sarah Palin inevitably prompts me to ponder the demise of meritocracy in America. Never mind the fact that her presidential readiness is measured by the proximity of Alaska to Russia, or the fact that the McCain camp listed Ireland as one of her foreign visits until it turned out that her plane had merely refueled on Irish soil. I'm mo

The rise of Sarah Palin inevitably prompts me to ponder the demise of meritocracy in America.

Never mind the fact that her presidential readiness is measured by the proximity of Alaska to Russia, or the fact that the McCain camp listed Ireland as one of her foreign visits until it turned out that her plane had merely refueled on Irish soil. I'm more interested in the simple test that she has twice flunked about her own state - and the fact that John McCain, using grade inflation, gives her an A anyway.

She stated on ABC News that Alaska produces "nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy." The accurate energy statistic, according to the federal government, is 3.5 percent. She subsequently amended her boast, claiming during a stump speech that Alaska produces "nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of oil and gas." Wrong again. The accurate oil and gas statistic, according to the feds, is 7.4 percent.

Yet none of that matters to McCain, and why should it?

In America these days, we award everyone for merit, from the brilliant to the mediocre. Just as in Little League, everyone gets a trophy. It's the ultimate in populist democratization. Which is why McCain insists, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, that Sarah Palin "knows more about energy than probably anybody in the United States of America."

Palin, however, is merely the latest beneficiary in the national celebration of mediocrity, much like one of those early-round American Idol entrants who wins insta-fame for being Just Like Us. Lest we forget, the lame-duck administration in Washington has long been dumbing down the standards for public service, by seeking to elevate the ill-qualified to positions of authority.

I think first of Harriet Miers, tapped for the U.S Supreme Court by President Bush, who lauded her as "the best person I could find." It turned out that Miers had penned exactly three legal articles (including a promotional story about some new bar association seminars), and that her most notable legal work had arguably occurred years earlier, when she handled the paperwork on Bush's fishing cabin.

I think of Monica Goodling, who was tapped for a key post at the Justice Department - evaluating the performance of U.S. attorneys, and helping to fire those deemed insufficiently conservative - despite her scant prosecutorial experience, and her stint at a law school listed in the "fourth tier" (the lowest score) by the academic rankers at U.S News & World Report.

I think of George Deutsch, a 24-year-old NASA appointee who barred NASA scientists from talking publicly about global warming, and who ordered NASA's Web designer to append the word theory to every mention of the Big Bang. Not only did Deutsch have no science background, it also turned out that (contrary to his initial claim) he didn't even graduate from college. But his political work for Bush's reelection campaign was deemed sufficiently meritorious.

I think of Claude Allen, the Bush domestic adviser who in 2006 pleaded guilty to shoplifting $850 worth of goods from Target. Allen had originally been tapped by Bush, three years earlier, for a federal appeals court judgeship, until it turned out that he had acted as lead counsel in a case exactly once, and had practiced law for only seven years - five years short of what the American Bar Association defines as the minimal qualification for a judicial nominee.

And I think of Michael Brown, whose creds to head FEMA were a mystery, unless one argues that his earlier tenure at the International Arabian Horse Association made him a good choice to aid distressed Americans.

"Brownie," however, was not alone. Patrick Rhode, the acting deputy director, got his FEMA job after working as a Bush advance man. His previous experience had consisted of covering natural disasters as a local TV anchorman. Rhode is the FEMA guy who lauded the agency's response to Katrina as "probably one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country's history."

So when I read up on Gov. Palin, and learned that she had tapped, as her state agriculture director, a former high school classmate and real estate agent with no management or government experience who nevertheless deemed herself qualified because of her long-standing affection for cows . . . well, my reaction was: Here we go again.

One wonders how the Founding Fathers would view the demise of meritocracy.

Alexander Hamilton insisted in the 76th Federalist Paper that our leaders "would be both ashamed and afraid" to elevate people whose chief qualification appeared to be "insignificance and pliancy." But today Hamilton would probably be dismissed as an "elitist" who cannot relate to the average Joe's apparent yearning for leaders who know just as little about the issues as they do.

So goodbye, Hamilton, and hello Roman Hruska.

The late senator from Nebraska is the guy who once defended an ill-qualified, ill-fated high court nominee by saying, "So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

Hruska was ridiculed for this remarks. But that was so 38 years ago. Given the populist impulses that are running rampant today, he looks like a seer.

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