You might have noticed that I have a dim view of Sarah Palin.  To judge from her public persona, she is judgmental and flighty.  She either is or acts profoundly ignorant of things she ought to know, and she’s proud of that.  It seems to me that she comes to decisions without due consideration of alternatives.  In short, she calls to mind George W. Bush, who’s not someone I appreciate having returned to the front of my mind.

And, like Bush, Palin is no great public speaker. Throughout the last election, I kept thinking that she often sounds as though she’s got three sentences she’s considering saying, and failing to find any of them quite right, she just braids them together; a few words from the first sentence, a clause from the second, a few more words from the first, and end it with the third.  This happens beyond the sentence level as well; she creates a maelstrom of half-developed points, any one of which she might return to at any given time. It makes it incredibly difficult to follow what she’s trying to say, or to understand her reasons for arguing what she’s arguing.

In short, Sarah Palin’s speech basically mocks itself.  A case in point is her resignation press conference. Her explanation for her resignation was more damning than anything anyone said about it; it made little sense, substituted analogies for arguments, wandered down dead ends, and left you feeling as though she delivered a nearly-finished first draft.  Heck, no one figured out why she was resigning for a few days, because her “ethics investigations cost Alaska too much money” argument was so unclear.  But letting Palin’s words speak for themselves was just too subtle for Vanity Fair, who took it upon themselves to post how they would have edited her resignation speech.

I’ve never cared for Vanity Fair; they have some good writers and occasionally have a good story, but the whole magazine thinks itself too clever by half.  It’s just another fashion-and-celebrities rag dolled up with a bit of political analysis and artistic portraits by fashion photographers, but it thinks it’s so much more. They get into the humor biz every once in a while, but it’s always this ham-handed “isn’t this person so STUPID?” joke. Editing Sarah Palin’s speech is a prime example; there’s the potential for some fun in remedying the awkward, disorganized, and rambling speech, but the problem is that they overdo the joke. Where the situation calls for a finishing nail, they choose a railroad spike. Here’s one page with their comments:

Clearly, they want us to say: “Look at all that red pen!  Sarah Palin is a grade-A dunce!  She could never get published in Vanity Fair!”  But if you look beyond the mere proportion of black-to-red text, you start to wonder why so many changes need to be made.  Look at that first paragraph; I can agree with the removal of the resumptive we and the replacement of the awkward progressing with working for. But why remove the next sentence? It’s a joke, a bit smarmy perhaps, but if the author wants to say it, who is the editor to cut it?  Many of the edits strike me as arbitrary matters of personal taste; I’d remove a very hard that the editor left in, I’d leave alone a few sentences he changed.  I don’t really understand why the last sentence got cut, or why the bit about energy independence needed cut out of the sentence before that.  And then there’s one terrible edit, one that really calls into question the editor’s judgement. That’s the replacement of

“We’re fishermen. We know only dead fish go with the flow.”


“We’re fishermen, so we know only dead fish go with the flow.”

Palin clearly intended this line to be a turning point in the speech. She covered her administration’s accomplishments, preceded this line with a couple paragraphs on the current troubles and ethics investigations, and after this line she switches over to her future plans. She structured the speech to focus on this line, and delivered it as two staccato sentences in the midst of longer ones. It’s powerful, even though it’s nonsense.  One might even argue that the line’s strength comes from the fact that for one shining moment, Palin is using a rhetorical flourish competently.  (Seriously, though, what the hell is this analogy supposed to mean? If only a dead fish would serve the full term it was elected to, then oughn’t Lincoln to have remained president until 1869?)

The revision, though, makes the two sentences into one compound sentence, and jams it onto the end of the preceding paragraph, where it gets lost in a sea of other compound sentences. It has no oomph, and it’s no longer able to serve as the strong division between sections. Sure, it’s a real stick in the eye to say to Sarah Palin, “We even changed your big line,” but it’s completely unjustified and just makes the editor look petty.

In cases like these, where you want to establish that someone can’t write, the right course of action is to edit conservatively: correct the spelling and factual errors, remove some of the sentence-initial conjunctions, address her often-odd word choice, and fix the redundancies. That would still have led to a substantially reddened paper, and we could have all had a fair chuckle. Another reasonable option would be to have some more competent writer completely re-write the speech, to show what Palin left on the table by being a poor writer. Even going through and really editing it, not just correcting minor points, but moving around sentences and components of the speech to improve its flow, would have been better.  But as it stands, it just feels like an editor with a vendetta went through with a fine-toothed comb, just to show off how many different things he could conceivably object to.  I’m not saying that Palin’s speech doesn’t make her look foolish. It’s just that the edited version doesn’t make Vanity Fair look much better.