Glenn W. LaFantasie: Actually, We Already Had a Palin White House Campaign





[Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and Director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University. His most recent book is"Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground" (Indiana University Press, 2008).] ...Lately, I’ve been trying to put Sarah Palin into a historical context. It’s not easy to do. She continues to attract public and media attention, even while her national approval ratings keep falling. Nevertheless, the media and her most fervent supporters are convinced (or hopeful) that she’ll make a run for the presidency in 2012. If that is indeed what’s she planning, I think we must admit that she is approaching the possibility of a Republican nomination in a very different manner than any candidate I can remember in my lifetime (six decades and counting). Her daily presence on television, in newspapers, on the Internet and Twitter, her reality show, her job as a commentator for Fox News, her two books, her surrogate manifestations on TV (Bristol Palin on "Dancing with the Stars"), and the coverage she gets for nearly every word she utters all add up to a truly unique path to high national office -- if that, indeed, is what she’s after. From another perspective, all this kinetic publicity is certainly accomplishing one thing, even if Palin decides not to run for president: she raking in a bundle of money....

Nevertheless, my thoughts did turn to John C. Frémont, a fellow out of American history that in all likelihood you’ve never heard of (unless you happen to live in Fremont, California). Frémont was the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party -- yes, Sarah Palin’s Republican Party -- in 1856. Today he’s forgotten, but in the mid nineteenth century he was probably the most famous man in the nation, an explorer of the West and an army officer who was hailed as a great hero. In other words, Frémont, like Palin, was a celebrity as well as a politician.

But there the apparent similarity pretty much ends. Unlike Palin, Frémont did not emerge out of nowhere onto the national scene. From the late 1830s to the late 1840s, Frémont led or participated in several topographical and scientific expeditions that explored the vast unknown terrain (at least unknown to most whites, except fur trappers and other "mountain men") that lay between the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Like the more famous Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who had made their famous trek to the Pacific from 1804 to 1806, Frémont was a trailblazer, a man who in his own lifetime was credited with opening up the West for settlement. By the time he ran for president in 1856, he was known as "The Great Pathfinder." His earlier achievements as an explorer, as a soldier who helped to win California from Mexico, as a man of destiny who made a fortune in the California Gold Rush -- all these things turned him into not only a hero, but a popular celebrity. Like Palin, who is hard at work establishing her status as a celebrity, Frémont did not look to any previous political experience (he had none) to boost his campaign for the presidency. Instead, he let his fame, his celebrity, do that for him. At age 43, he would have been the nation’s youngest president up to that time if he had been elected....

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