When Hillary Clinton was introduced (as if she needed to be) to a packed room at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on a recent evening, the room erupted in sustained applause at the mention of how many votes she received in the 2016 presidential election.
Much to my surprise, as I clapped, tears started forming in my eyes to the point where I had to wipe them at the corners. Clinton hadn’t even said a word yet.
But when she did, it proved to be an hour focused on foreign policy, mostly context and analysis on Ukraine and Vladimir Putin. Her easy command of historic dates, her nerd-level knowledge of global affairs, and her rich experience in that realm made for an informative, if sometimes sobering, evening.
There were no applause lines at the expense of others. No red, white and blue banners with her name on them in the audience. No one hero worshipping based on some puffed-up resume. No one padding crowd numbers to stroke her ego.
No need for any of that. She brings the goods, more than any presidential candidate in recent memory.
While I was quite intent on listening to her, a few times I admit I drifted to that place of incredulousness that we, the United States of America, instead chose to elect a grifter who convinced a whole swath of voters he wasn’t one of the country’s elites. A candidate and eventual president who, with the help of a major cable news network, made people swell with pride at the dumbing down of our nation.
Hours after seeing Secretary Clinton, I found myself in an unenviable position – awake and unable to sleep at 4 a.m. Rather than fight it, I indulged it. As I was flipping through Instagram, I saw a short clip of MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace appearing as a guest on John Heilemann’s Hell & High Water podcast and it intrigued me enough to click over to the first one-hour segment (it was in two parts). Later at the gym I listened to the second hour.
It was like a salve. As a fan of Wallace’s Deadline White House show, I’ve come to enjoy getting my news from her. She’s a former Republican who has become disenchanted with the party since the election of Donald Trump. She’s not a Democrat, so her insights – also born of years honing political messaging for the likes of Jeb Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain – are typically not pandering to my preconceived opinions or biases.
I could enthusiastically pluck 20 or more highlight quotes from her conversation with Heilemann, with whom she has an easy rapport because they’re longtime friends. However, with respect to my observations about Hillary Clinton just hours before, it was their dialogue about Sarah Palin that most fascinated me.
For those not familiar with Wallace, she was one of the campaign staffers tasked with preparing Palin for her vice presidential run with McCain. She actually prepped her for three interviews before, as she put it, she was “cast off the island” by Palin.
On the podcast, Heilemann reviewed their strategy from back in the 2008 campaign, including Wallace’s reluctance to put Palin on 60 Minutes or Meet the Press because of her lack of preparedness. Heilemann then played the infamous Saturday Night Live clip of Tina Fey’s Palin saying she could see Russia from her house. And this was Wallace’s current day reaction to it.
“That’s so 2008,” Wallace said. “Obviously the country doesn’t give a fuck about preparation because it elected Donald Trump.”
Point taken. Now that Palin is running for a Congressional seat in Alaska and has name recognition going for her, Wallace contended, Trump may have paved the way for her brand of campaigning: “She is so much this moment in Republican politics.”
Referring to herself and other McCain campaign staffers as conventional political operatives, Wallace now says maybe she was wrong and that their approach may have cramped Palin’s style, so to speak.
“What she could have ushered in if she sat down with [Meet the Press host] Russert is ‘Tim, you’re everything that’s wrong with American politics. Who fucking cares what my position is on NATO?’ I mean, we ended up having a president in Donald Trump who, you know, to this day sees no value in NATO … Maybe we should have let her sit down with Russert and say, ‘Take your elite media establishment show and shove it.’ Maybe that would have served her better.”
Heilemann talked about the fact that Palin knew how uninformed she was. He also likened the Palin brand to that of sitting Congress members Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, pointing out how acceptable it is now in the Republican party. Wallace called it a strain of nativism, protectionism, and isolationism.
“The country decided in those intervening years that experience and knowledge did not matter,” Wallace said. “Donald Trump’s base was never in jeopardy and he never once displayed any acumen for any policy debate ever. He wanted to pull out of NATO. He thought Putin was great … He laced racism and ineptitude and corruption into every single day as the American president. He changed the calculations for someone like Sarah Palin. He made Sarah Palin possible … She’s extremely proud of being uninformed. She’s extremely proud of being a grievance politician.”
The pair also pointed to a moment in the McCain campaign that signaled events to come in the Republican party with regard to racism. It was not only what Palin said from the podium, but some of the offensive comments made from people in her crowds. Wallace notes that is what fractured Palin’s relationship with McCain.
“She is quintessential post-Republican Trumpism,” Wallace said.
The entire conversation sent shivers down my spine while also prompting nods and flickers of insight.
Not the least of which was a sound explanation for my tears in a room full of applauding people less than 24 hours before. Via Hillary Clinton, the realization had hit me – in America, knowledge is no longer power.