ST. PAUL, Minn. — Has anyone noticed that Sarah Palin’s central claim to political fame is a fraud? She represents herself as a fiscal conservative who abhors pork-barrel projects and said no thanks to the “bridge to nowhere” — a $398-million span that would have linked Ketchikan, Alaska, to its airport across the Tongass Narrows. But as mayor of Wasilla (pop. 9,780), she hired a Washington lobbyist to bring home the bacon. And just two years ago as a candidate for governor, she supported both the Ketchikan bridge and the congressional earmark that would have paid most of its cost.

I know, we’re not supposed to pay attention to such inconvenient details. We’re supposed to be dazzled by how unaffected she is, how plain-spoken, how “genuine.”

Indeed, if you don’t get hung up on her actual record, Palin simply is who she is. It’s not her fault that she’s a former Miss Wasilla with a campy “Northern Exposure” vibe, doctrinaire social-conservative views and no discernible qualifications for being vice president. It’s undeniable that people in Alaska apparently like her well enough, though they seem to have been even more shocked than the rest of us when she was named to the Republican ticket. In any event, she’s not the one who created this farcical situation.

We learned last week that John McCain is not who he is — not, at least, who he claims to be. The steady, straight-talking, country-first statesman his campaign has been selling is a fictional character. The real McCain is either alarmingly cynical or dangerously reckless.

You will recall that McCain gave the same prime criterion for choosing a running mate that every presidential candidate gives: someone who is ready to step in as president if, heaven forbid, the need arises. Barack Obama echoed those words before picking Joe Biden, who is about as prepared as a vice presidential candidate could ever be.

You will also recall that McCain and his supporters have been lecturing us about the grave and urgent dangers our country faces — Islamic fundamentalism, the resurgence of Russia and other geopolitical threats. In a menacing world, McCain says, he will keep America safe.

So, at 72 and with a history of cancer, how could McCain choose a vice presidential nominee who has, let’s face it, zero experience in foreign affairs? Being the nominal commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard doesn’t count, unless you think Vladimir Putin is about to order an invasion across the Bering Strait.

At a time when the nation also confronts enormous challenges at home, Palin has, um, slightly more than zero experience in domestic affairs. The reason most people move to Alaska is that it’s different from the rest of the country. Salmon fishing and snowmobile racing are not front-page news in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida.

McCain’s political calculation in choosing Palin is obvious. Social conservatives, who had been unexcited by his candidacy, are ecstatic that he has picked a running mate who staunchly opposes abortion, favors the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools and generally embraces the agenda of the religious right.

I have my doubts about the other objective of McCain’s gambit: to win the votes of blue-collar women who supported Hillary Clinton. For one thing, these voters disagree sharply with Palin on most of the issues. For another, initial indications are that many women were insulted at the notion that they would automatically swoon over any candidate who happened to have two X chromosomes. Republicans tend to have a comically simplistic view of how “identity politics” works. They should recall how African-Americans reacted when Clarence Thomas was named to the Supreme Court.

Whatever the political impact, so much for the John McCain we thought we knew. In choosing Palin, he cynically did what his party is always accusing Democrats of doing: He selected a running mate based on her potential ability to appeal to targeted segments of the electorate, rather than for her honestly assessed ability to lead the nation should the occasion arise.

The other thing we learned about McCain is that he is willing to take an enormous gamble based on limited information. He met Palin only once before summoning her for a final interview. He realized he needed to shake up the presidential race, and that’s what he did. But we are reminded, if we did not realize it before, that the three things not to expect from a McCain presidency are caution, prudence and a willingness to always put the nation’s interests above his own.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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