WASHINGTON — As the GOP candidates have been thrashing it out in debates that seem to occur every couple of hours or so, one almost misses the iconic wink that enraged or beguiled the nation a political season ago.
Admit it. You miss Sarah Palin just a little: The wink, the red shoes, the pointing finger, the heck-with-ya attitude and, given the performance of some of her Republican colleagues, her Taser-like intelligence.
Yes, it has come to this.
It helped — a lot — that Palin was an attractive woman. A man winks during a debate for the highest or second-highest office in the land, and he’s not cute or flirty -- or sending sparks ricocheting around the living rooms of conservative magazine editors. He’s an idiot.
Even so, Rick Perry could have used a little winkage when his mind blanked during a recent debate and he couldn’t recall that in which he passionately believes. Something about government agencies that should be dismantled.
Having ”stepped in it,” as he put it, Perry took the only exit possible and hit the late-night comedy hour. If you can’t be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, you may as well be funny. Bring it!
Alas, Perry wasn’t as amusing as he was comical when he appeared on the ”Late Show with David Letterman.” It was rather sad seeing the Texas governor centered in a carnivalesque spotlight reciting the 10 reasons he forgot what he so ardently believes, as though they were merely forgotten lines in a memorized poem.
Letterman’s writers had some swell lines for ol’ Rick, but ultimately, the act was as cringe-inducing as the flub itself. Perry seemed like a child being brought out to amuse the adults. The line between laughing with and laughing at was a tightrope stretched between mirth and pity.
It is one thing to be self-effacing and to have a sense of humor about one’s self. We love that. It is another to be a clown. The thrice-elected governor of the nation’s second-largest state has earned better.
Next in the parade of painful moments was Herman Cain’s floundering during an interview at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was asked a simple question: Did you agree with President Obama’s handling of Libya?
Libya, Libya, Libya, Gaddafi, opposition, dang, what was that thing? Anyone? Anyone?
For minutes that seemed hours, Cain seemed to be shuffling through file drawers of bullet points in his brain and was coming up empty. He said he did not ”agree with the way he handled it for the following reason.”
”Um, nope, that’s a different one,” he said, batting away an errant thought with his hand.
It got worse: ”I gotta go back, see, got all this stuff twirling around in my head.”
No doubt. With the sexual harassment charges dogging his campaign — and the exhausting pace of debates, book touring and speeches — Cain is surely worn out. On the one hand, we sympathize. We all have brain freezes. On the other, we don’t all run for president.
Even a presidential candidate suffers no dishonor by sometimes admitting he doesn’t know an answer. Giving Cain credit to the limited extent due, he has made clear that he doesn’t know every little thing, but has promised to hire smart people who do. During a Q-and-A following a luncheon speech at the National Press Club a few weeks ago, he oddly handed off a question about his 9-9-9 tax plan to Rich Lowrie, the plan’s architect.
Immediately afterward, he volunteered to me that he could have answered the question himself, but he was tired. This had been his third event of the day, after all, and his voice was weakening. It had came back strong at the end of the luncheon, however, when Cain closed by singing ”He Looked Beyond My Faults.”
Perry and Cain are both talented men who deserve more than our contempt. Nevertheless, it has become clear that they are not now presidential material. We may indeed overlook their faults, but we needn’t excuse what are more than mere lapses. Their lack of knowledge or recall suggests a lack of depth and an absence of seriousness. We expect more from those who pretend to the throne.
And though Americans admire the self-made who have experienced ordinary life, most don’t want an ordinary person to lead the country.
A funny line is worth a laugh, a song may buy you lunch, but in the end, there’s no winking one’s way to the White House.