One of the most intriguing episodes of American political history, and one with particular resonance for observers of this year's presidential race, took place at the Democratic National Convention in 1896.
At that time, the Democrats were split between supporters of the policies of outgoing conservative incumbent President Grover Cleveland and the party's left wing, known to history as the Populists.
During the course of the platform debate, a little-known former congressman from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan ascended the podium and made the radical argument for dropping the gold standard and substituting it with a system in which the currency would also be pegged to the value of silver. This was favored by farmers, because they wrongly believed devaluing the dollar would benefit debtors in a depressed economy.
The 'Cross of Gold'
The 36-year-old Bryan was a political nobody when he started what would come to be known as the "Cross of Gold" speech. When he concluded with a dramatic warning to the eastern business establishment that it would not be allowed to "crucify" mankind "upon a cross of gold," he had changed the face of American politics.
According to historical accounts, Bryan's oratory sent his listeners into a wild frenzy. A day later, the Democratic delegates, most of whom could not have picked him out of a police lineup before the convention, nominated him for president in a shocking upset.
During the ensuing campaign, Bryan went on to travel the country giving the rest of America a taste of his talent for speechmaking, an unprecedented development in American politics. His opponent, Republican William McKinley, would, by contrast, spend the fall as every other previous presidential hopeful had done, merely receiving visitors on his front porch in Ohio.
But McKinley had what Bryan did not — an army of expert fundraisers and organizers (tactics that were not invented by Karl Rove). As a result, he won the presidency that November.
Although Bryan is chiefly remembered today for an incident at the end of his life — his pathetic turn as the prosecutor in the Scopes "monkey trial," wherein a teacher was criminally charged for instructing his students about evolutionary theory — his charismatic run for the White House ushered in the modern era of political campaigning.
There is no "wayback" machine to return us to 1896 to witness how a single speech could launch a national political career, but last week we may have seen history repeat itself.
When Sarah Palin walked onto the stage of the 2008 Republican National Convention, she was the focus of a firestorm of speculation and condescension centered around the soap opera pregnancy of her daughter. Even those in Republican standard-bearer John McCain's corner assumed she had been tapped for the vice presidency as an act of affirmative action and was bound to be exposed as a lightweight. The analogies drawn with former vice president Dan Quayle, whose "deer in the headlights" look would burden the first Bush presidency from the get-go, were rampant even though Palin had yet to make her first national appearance.
But by the time she finished speaking last week, Palin had become her party's biggest star, eclipsing the popularity of even the honored war hero on the top of the ticket.
Granted, Palin's acceptance speech was no "Cross of Gold" in terms of eloquence. But her authentic "hockey mom" personality and tart criticisms of her opponent, as well as of the media and the Washington establishment, enthralled not only the delegates but a great many of those television viewers who had tuned in because of the hullabaloo. Republicans embraced Palin with the same sort of unexpected delight that the Democrats experienced with Bryan 112 years ago.
Yet, the din of criticism has not diminished, although her address made it quite clear that she is no "token female." Rather, it is she, not McCain, who has become the principal political attraction on the GOP ticket.
Though one expects Democrats to disagree with the substance of her remarks, the patronizing contempt with which Palin's candidacy has been regarded must go deeper than simple partisanship.
Palin's nomination has reignited the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s, as liberals view her not merely as a representative of the political party they oppose, but as an icon of a culture they regard with snobbish distaste and trepidation.
These sentiments span the liberal spectrum, and quite notably reside within a Jewish demographic, a portion of whom had heretofore been open to the McCain candidacy. Judging by the reaction she has generated, Palin is well on her way to becoming the evangelical bogeywoman for liberal Jews who view her beliefs as the antithesis to all they hold dear. For them, the Palin phenomenon is a nightmare.
Although soundly criticized for his remark, Barack Obama's slip of the tongue about small-town Americans who cling to guns and religion rang true to more than just his inner sanctum. To feminists, Sarah Palin is the embodiment of that "small-town American," and while she may be a woman, she is not "their kind" of woman. Even more to the point, the idea that a conservative woman may be the one to finally break the ultimate political glass ceiling is met by many Democratic women with particular dismay.
Last week, columnist Barbara Amiel wrote in The Wall Street Journal to compare Palin to Margaret Thatcher, a fellow conservative who bucked feminist sentiment in her rise to power in Britain. While it is way too early for such a discussion, no one should be surprised if Palin vaults to the top of the ticket in four or eight years, leaving more- seasoned male GOP bigshots in the dust. If she does — as was the case with the similarly middle-class Thatcher — liberals, and in particular, liberal women, will never forgive her for it.
Just as Palin's working mother persona has surely compelled some religious conservatives to rethink their antediluvian beliefs that a woman's place is still not in the governor's or vice president's office, so, too, should liberals examine some of their overarching generalities.
She is from an overwhelmingly Republican state where independence is paramount. She, like many others from Alaska, hunts. She's an evangelical Christian. Finally, she's a woman whose faith guided her not to abort her Down Syndrome fetus. Liberals may insist upon portraying her as a yahoo coming in to trample the rights of the few remaining freethinkers, but they'd be kidding themselves if they deny that Palin is independent, unequivocating and a political natural whose talents should not be underestimated.
On the strength of one remarkable speech, Sarah Palin has risen from obscurity to become the darling of conservatives and a political star. Her critics may hope that she never catches the brass ring, just as Bryan ultimately failed to do. On the other hand, it is possible that we have just been introduced to the woman who may become our first female president.