Back in 1988, you may recall, the Republicans -- whose presidential candidate was George Herbert Walker Bush, a man dogged by a reputation as a lightweight, unserious flibbertigibbet who treated his political career something like a particularly unattractive rug he had inherited from his grandparents -- decided to nominate for the vice-presidency an Indiana senator named J. Danforth Quayle. Quayle, who apparently got his senatorial post as a graduation present along with a new set of Ping clubs and an "Official Pussy Inspector" t-shirt, proved to be such a know-nothing frat-boy type that his mere existence lent Bush the First an unearned air of gravitas. His first few weeks on the campaign trail showed him to be so astonishingly ignorant and so profoundly unaware of the very demeanor expected of an aspirant to national office that he accomplished something almost unthinkable in the post-Reagan era: he made people believe he might just be too stupid to be in politics. After an extensive, albeit not particularly effective, period during which he was pulled off the campaign trail and sent to 'vice-president school' (the first, but sadly not the last, time that phrase would appear in American politics), he returned to the public eye and continued to make a total jackass of himself; were it not for the evil genius of Lee Atwater, combined with the evil non-genius of the Dukakis campaign, he never would have been heard from again. As it happened, he moved into the White House along with his boss, with the tacit understanding that he would emerge only briefly to say something really stupid and remind everyone how unthinkable it would be for Bush to die. Once America had an opportunity to get him the fuck out of there, they did so posthaste, and he had the good taste to disappear from public life and return to the golf courses from which his four years as the second most powerful man on Earth were an irritating distraction.
After a brief interlude in 1996, when they nominated the personable and well-meaning, albeit lunkheaded, Jack Kemp as the man to convince America that Bob Dole wasn't going to punch them in the eyeball, they handed the vice-presidential nomination over to the terrifying Dick Cheney, a Blofeldian oligarch whose previous role as a Wyoming senator was to intimidate foreign dictators. As with Quayle, America decided pretty quickly that it didn't want to see Cheney under any circumstances, but while Quayle served only to remind voters that they had elected a Ken doll to the second-highest station in the land, Cheney frankly terrified everyone. Both liberals and conservatives seemed to agree that Cheney was some sort of horrible extraterrestrial warlord who fed on the blood of infants, and that his was the iron-clad, spike-studded hand that controlled President George W. Bush; the only difference of opinion was that Democrats felt it unseemly that we had a supervillain leader, and Republicans thought that it was good for morale to have the Red Skull in charge. When, after 9/11, he disappeared into his underground fortress to build an invincible army of mole people, the feeling on both sides was more relief than dismay, and when he ended up shooting a guy in the face, no one was a bit surprised.
Now, of course, we have Sarah Palin, a woman so peerlessly unqualified for national office of any kind that it constitutes a powerful exercising of the collective will of America to not just laugh in her face. Her claims of relatability are really no more than claims of ordinariness, as befits someone who was apparently selected for the vice-presidential slot based on the same rigorous vetting process that determines where you're going to stop and eat on the freeway when your kids are hollering. A combination of the kind of scandals that Republican yobbos explode themselves over and a complete lack of ability to come across as a person of substance has led to the McCain campaign throwing her into a traveling Cone of Silence, from which she occasionally emerges to eat ice cream, ask a foreign dignitary a scripted question, or read some folksy truism from the back of an oatmeal box. If politics were anything like a meritocracy, Sarah Palin would never have risen to the rank of anything higher than the most pesty member of a small-town school board; as it is, this dismally uninspiring woman is next in line to be president behind the oldest man to ever run for that office.
Time will tell if Palin actually wins the vice-presidency, but what does it say about the G.O.P.'s attitude towards the running of the country that if she does win, their last three VP winners will have been a man so stupid and bumbling that America demanded he spend his 4-year term in hiding; a man so Machiavellian and sinister that America was relieved that he spent his 8-year term in hiding; and a woman so profoundly incompetent that her own party insisted she spend the entire campaign season in hiding? I mean, say what you will about Joe Biden, John Edwards, Al Gore, and Lloyd Bentsen; at least the Democrats weren't terrified to let them appear in public.