Sonia versus Sarah

SAN Francisco, California – Sarah Palin. Sonia Sotomayor. These two women have almost nothing in common except gender – and a little time in the public eye. But thereby hangs a tale. And a look at how opportunity is and was created in this country.

Sonia Sotomayer’s success is due in no small part to the willingness of Ivy-league institutions to accept students without regard for their economic status. As recently as 30 years ago – when student loans were new, Pell Grants went by an ugly series of initials (BEOG) and yuppies didn’t exist, places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton underwrote college tuition for pretty much anyone smart enough to get accepted.

You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist. You didn’t have to be a varsity-level jock. You just had to get admitted to the school and fill out a bunch of forms. If you needed the money – and you were in – the schools would help. And if you got in and you needed money half-way through, most would help with that, too.

It wasn’t rosy, no one should think it was. Ivy-league schools were expensive then and anyone getting financial aide worried not just about getting through four years but getting the loans paid off once they got out. That’s probably why we’ve got so very many lawyers in this country.

Today it’s almost impossible for a student at any of those schools to “work their way through”. Tuition is simply too expensive, grants harder to come by, loan terms more restrictive – and this is before the economic crisis that’s cut many an endowment fund off at the knees.

In contrast to Sotomayor – who’s got a smile that can light up a room – we’ve got Sarah Palin. It’s been hard to decide what to make of Palin. She’s grasping and self-righteous and possessed of an intelligence that gives her – let’s be polite – a shrewd sense of how to take the best advantage of an opportunity. But, hey, that’s politics. And her speech before the Republican National Convention was a great demonstration of these skills. She’s a good campaigner; voters like her.

But Palin’s path to national-level success seems to rest almost entirely on her personal charms. It’s hard to believe given her recent public outbursts, that Palin can be charming. But a lot of Republican men seem to think she is attractive and they are anxious to recruit more women to the party. That’s how Palin got nominated to be vice president.

Plenty of women take advantage of their looks to succeed – and Palin with her five kids and handsome “first dude” of a husband does a good job of winking to those who can’t play that game but who don’t mind her doing so. They would if they could. When Palin raids Nieman Marcus her supporters understand that she deserves something nice – just as they do – after years of hard, thankless work. And Palin’s look – sexy Mommy – is very important. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (where she was a no show) earlier this year, the hot Librarian look – glasses, up-do, very high heels – was the look for young girls

Palin’s dilemma is that women who do take advantage of their looks – for a living – pretty much know it. You don’t see a lot of supermodels worrying about what David Letterman thinks of them or their families. And they certainly don’t issue press releases every time someone suggests that they’re somehow less than perfect. You have to have good and thick skin to succeed on a smile; it is a kind of cynical affirmative action. You’re getting help ’cause you’re cute – that’s it.

You also have to be pretty tough to make it through the nation’s legal establishment with a Spanish last name fighting the belief that formal affirmative action programs – which at their best are nothing more giving people a break on the basis of potential ability – are somehow zero-sum games. And while Sonia Sotomayor probably doesn’t mean to stand in contrast to Palin, her accomplishments give us a good look at how opportunity on the basis of ability – not personal charm or looks – is the better course.

A lot of breath will be wasted in the U.S. Senate today about Sotomayor’s success because of her minority status. To which the answer should be “So what?” Very little of that sort of criticism is leveled at Palin who represents women in the Republican party – a minority if I ever saw one. But between the two of them, we can get a look at how affirmative action should work and why it’s still very much needed.

A policy designed to help those who have the proven ability to help themselves – getting into Princeton and Yale ain’t easy – is one that by its open-handed faith has the power to discourage those whose only real ability is to look out for number one.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.

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