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Breathless over Sarah

Poor Joe Biden. He likes attention, and he deserves it. He’s smart, experienced, engaging, witty, and has a smile that, could its brightness be tapped, would give the nation a nice start toward energy independence.

But he can’t get any. Attention, I mean. He certainly couldn’t when he sought the presidential nomination. And then, even after he got picked for the team, when his big moment came — it was all about Sarah.

I think I can speak for much of America here when I say Sarah Palin had me breathless Thursday night. I don’t mean “breathless” the way Kathleen Parker meant it when she described the way she felt watching the veep candidate in her earlier interviews, pulling for her “like so many” women (this was before she decided Mrs. Palin was a “problem” and should drop out).

Nor was I breathless in the sense that David Brooks meant it in The New York Times Friday, when he wrote of “Republicans around the country crouched nervously behind their sofas,” afraid for their gal. First, I’m not a Republican (or a Democrat). Second, as much as I admire and respect John McCain, and have for years, I was not enchanted by his choice. It was like, If I can’t have Joe Lieberman, I don’t care WHO it is; if this is what the base wants, they can have her. Which is not a good way to pick a potential future president.

Nor was it that she’s a “babe,” as I have learned not to say on my blog. She’s pretty, but not to the point of constricting one’s breath.

No, I realized Thursday night that I was getting light-headed whenever she spoke for the same reason that some movies and TV shows are painful to watch. You know how you can tell when something’s about to happen that will be enormously embarrassing to the character on the screen, and even if you don’t like the character (although it’s worse if they’re likable, and Gov. Palin is that), you cringe, because you don’t want to see it. You get embarrassed for the human race; you empathize no matter how much you try not to.

Think of the boss character on “The Office,” in almost any scene.

Often at such moments, I leave the room. Life is painful enough without having your nose rubbed in contrived discomfort. But I had to keep watching the debate, on account of it being my job.

Fortunately, it went fine for all concerned. Sarah did fine. There were moments, of course, such as her repeated demonstrations that she learned to pronounce “nuclear” by listening to the current president (he oughta know, right?). And if she had said “maverick” just one more time...

(I had reached my saturation point on that word during the convention. At least there it had the appeal of being extremely ironic, since the hall was full of people who hated him for being a... you know. Yes, he is one of those, and I like that about him; just don’t say it again. Try “nonconformist,” or even “iconoclast.” Sure, it doesn’t sound as macho, and maybe lots of folks don’t know what it means, and those who do may not like its anti-religious roots. But gosh darn it, if Sarah Palin started saying “iconoclast,” hockey moms all over the lower 48 would start sayin’ it, and first thing ya know it would be as American as snowmobiles.)

But she did fine. And Joe did fine. And in the end I was fine, because I was breathing again.

You may say, “of course Joe did fine,” but things could have gone very badly for him. He likes to show how smart he is, and up against an opponent that much of America is worried for, regardless of how they’ll vote (a friend who had described Gov. Palin’s convention speech to me as “venomous” confided Friday morning that he, too, had been breathless,) he was crossing a minefield.

At this point, you may justly wonder, “Was there substance in this debate, or is it just about how it made you feel?” Suitably chastened, I would admit that there probably was. There was all that talk about Iraq, for instance. And come to think of it, by my lights, Sarah Palin had the right of it, and Joe Biden was wrong. But then, she was just channeling what John McCain has always said — that we can’t afford to lose there. Come to think of it, Sen. Biden was reflecting what Barack Obama, and the folks who swept him to the nomination, believe about Iraq. Joe Biden knows better. Or at least, he used to.

And I don’t know which was more unsettling — the idea of Sarah Palin suddenly becoming president (as she said, “heaven forbid”), or Joe Biden’s intimation that we didn’t need to worry, he’d be there in the Oval Office at all times keeping an eye on that fine young fellow he’s running with (although he quickly added, “He’s president, not me...”).

Not that a Palin presidency wouldn’t be interesting. Imagine the State of the Union delivered in the voice of Frances McDormand in “Fargo,” but speaking lines from an Andy Hardy movie: “We’ll reduce the deficit by puttin’ on a show in the barn! You betcha!”

Forgive me. I get carried away. But I find that we’re in a strange and unexpected place. I had expected to be pretty pumped right about now, because the two guys I wanted to win their respective nominations did so, and I don’t remember that having happened before. But I wasn’t exactly blown away by the first presidential debate; it seemed overshadowed by the Wall Street implosion, which wasn’t the kind of dominant theme I had expected. Nor, apparently, had the nominees.

So we turned to the vice presidential debate, which actually turned out to be more interesting and engaging, to the credit of Mr. Biden and Mrs. Palin.

Still, I don’t think it helped anyone make up their minds — even if it did, for a brief time, have some of us breathless.

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