Long before field dressing moose and shooting wolves from helicopters became part of American political parlance, a United States senator with White House ambitions sat down in his Washington D.C. office with the most powerful pentecostal woman in the country. The nation was facing an unprecedented economic crisis and tremendous social unrest. The senator probably hoped that the pentecostal maverick might strengthen his ticket by helping him win votes in the west and among women. The senator was not John McCain and the woman was not Sarah Palin.
No, this was a chance meeting between two of the greatest personalities of the twentieth century—Louisiana senator Huey Long and Los Angeles preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. According to McPherson’s publicist, the two met in Long’s office in 1934. “The Kingfish and the Angel clicked so well,” he wrote, “that, before I could get Aimee out of there, they had decided to run for President and Vice President on the same independent ticket.” Long’s assassination the next year (if not McPherson’s Canadian birth) foiled the potential plan.
In Sarah Palin, one cannot help but see glimpses of jazz-age evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Indeed, the two women share a lot in common. They both came from small towns and cold places. Palin boasts of living in Wasilla, among people who “do some of the hardest work in America . . . who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.”
McPherson grew up in Salford, Ontario, a middle class farming community. She routinely delivered her favorite sermon called “The Story of My Life” with milk pail in hand, wearing a flapping sunbonnet and farm-girl calicos. Emphasizing if not exaggerating her humble origins, McPherson sent her audience a clear message: she was a commoner from Main Street, just like them.
Both McPherson and Palin dedicated their lives to the same faith, pentecostalism, which emphasizes God’s intervention in the modern world. Pentecostals are defined by their belief in the continuation of New Testament-era “gifts of the spirit” such as speaking in tongues. Yet both women learned that such practices are controversial even among Christians, so both downplayed their belief in the gifts. McPherson tried to keep her ecstatic practices off the radio, while Palin has tried to keep hers off YouTube.
McPherson, like Palin, mastered the language of populism. She tapped into the dreams and fears of the masses while employing a folksy, down-to-earth speaking style. She viewed “godless communists,” and the political leaders who did their bidding, as one of the greatest threats facing the nation in the 1930s. As a result, she joined the crusade to stop Upton Sinclair’s run for the California governorship. Like many others, she thought that the writer’s left-leaning political convictions and his supposed past associations with radicals made him suspect.
Palin is similarly skilled. By resurrecting Obama’s Jeremiah Wright controversy, and making subtle and not-so-subtle comments about Obama’s association with “terrorists,” she too has demonstrated her ability to play on Americans’ worst fears (and their nativism) to score political points.
There are other similarities as well. McPherson, like Palin, enjoyed talking about her family as much as the pressing political concerns of the day. And both women have drawn attention for their unconventional attractiveness. Yet despite sharing so much in common, Sarah Palin is no Aimee Semple McPherson.
McPherson never met a reporter she didn’t like. She made sure to spend time with the press on a daily basis. Whether journalists were writing sympathetic stories about the evangelist or lampooning her on the front pages of their papers, Sister Aimee could always be counted on for an engaging interview. She won over the best and brightest journalists in the nation, from pioneering feminist and L.A. Times writer Alma Whitaker to cynic H. L. Mencken to radio host and future president Ronald Reagan. Palin, on the other hand, hides behind a phalanx of aids. Unlike Aimee, Palin seems unwilling and unable to engage with reporters over topics large and small.
The most important thing, however, that separates Aimee Semple McPherson from Sarah Palin is native intelligence. McPherson was a larger than life character, whose ambitions and personal flaws often got her into trouble. But nobody ever doubted her ability to approach an issue from multiple perspectives, think it through, develop a position, and then articulate that position when asked by skeptics and allies alike.
Palin, on the other hand, seems vapid. For all of her boasting of “common sense,” we are yet to see that common sense in action. When Katie Couric asked Palin “what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read . . . to stay informed and to understand the world?” Palin stumbled around before answering “Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.” And during the vice-presidential debate, she not only dodged direct questions, but told Joseph Biden, “And I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people.”
What Palin has failed to understand is that the American people want straight answers, not just straight talk. Campaign stops are for speechmaking; debates are for answering questions. We may not necessarily always agree with those answers, but we expect our leaders to have convictions—something McPherson had in spades but Palin seems to lack.
Throughout her life, there was never any doubt as to what McPherson believed and why. She never hesitated to discuss the issues of the era such as poverty relief, Prohibition, the morals of the dance halls, or the sins of Hollywood. Palin, on the other hand, dodges and weaves, waffling on important issues. She refuses to give the American people clear answers about such important and controversial issues as the economy or gay rights.
Palin may be smarter than she appears. But at this point in the campaign, it is hard to believe that her handlers won’t loosen up the leash unless they are afraid of what she might say. No reasonable person expects Palin to match Biden’s knowledge of the science of government, or to equal Obama’s understanding of the Supreme Court. We just want to know that she has thought through the major issues—and if she hasn’t, we want to know that she has the requisite skills required to do so.
Maybe McPherson would have struggled with some of Gwen Ifill and Katie Couric’s questions. But when she didn’t have answers to reporters’ queries, she would turn the questions around on the reporters to initiate a thoughtful discussion about the fundamental issues inherent in the question. McPherson thought on her feet and she was not afraid to let the rest of us see her mind at work. With Palin, all we get is evasion, ignorance, and then anger at the media, as if it was journalists’ fault that Palin has been unable to engage in a sustained conversation about the major problems threatening the nation. Nobody ever doubted McPherson’s brains; we have yet to see Palin’s.
Aimee Semple McPherson was a maverick with tremendous common sense. Sarah Palin is no Aimee Semple McPherson.