Sarah at Tilbury

Sarah at Tilbury June 4, 2011

For the past three years, ever since Sarah Palin introduced her winsome self to our great nation, I have promised myself I would rewrite the Tilbury speech in her idiom.

The Tibury speech, many of you will know, ranks among the greatest PR coups in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Drake had just defeated the armada sailing in the name of Phillip II of Spain, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law (a far more dangerous man than Trooper Mike Wooten, even without a tazer). However, more troops from Phillip’s various dominions were assembled at Dunkirk, waiting for the cue to invade. The bear, as they say, was still very much in the woods.

Hoping to jolly up her land forces — which, in terms of quality, fell far short of her navy, and for that matter, Spain’s land forces — Elizabeth traveled to Tilbury, in Essex, where the troops were encamped. Wearing armor, mounted on horseback, she delivered a succinct speech. For raw power, it easily matches Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech — which followed it by some eleven years — or any of Churchill’s addresses, or the appeal to France made by De Gaulle following the debacle, via the BBC. If there had been cameras, it would have been a perfect photo op; if Gheeraerts had been on hand, he shound have made everyone hold their poses until he’d captured them on canvas.

I reasoned there was no better way to show up Palin as a babbling, populist mountebank than to put the great Gloriana’s words in her mouth and imagine how she’d mangle them. After combing through WikiQuotes and cutting and pasting, I came up with this:

My loving people, How’s that Popey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?

Y’know, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commitmentize ourselves our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I’m not wired that way! I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people like they originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea, or from monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.

Well, here’s a little news flash: I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport — like a member of the permanent political establishment — but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood even, in the dust.

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I don’t want to make any perceived whine about excess criticism or being under a sharper microscope; I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that any lamestream countries like Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. And then, when people go back and look at track records and see who’s more apt to be talking about solutions and wishing for and hoping for solutions for some opportunity to change, and who’s actually done it.

I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you — all of ’em…any of ’em. I have a vast variety of sources where we get our rewards and crowns, too.

In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people. And y’know what? I can see Dunkirk from my house!

You don’t have to say it — I know: it stinks. It stinks like a timber wolf shot in high summer and left to rot on the taiga. I played the very low trick everyone always accuses the media of playing: I quoted Palin out of context. If I’d managed to highlight an existing, previously undetected contrast between the virgin Queen’s style and the former governor‘s, that would have been perfectly cricket. Instead, I created one and jammed it into place. Bad form, sir.

I resorted to this cheap flummery because, in the course of my research, I made a discovery so shocking as to be almost indigestible: considered in isolation, there is nothing very laughable about Palin’s diction. Flat on the page, where there are no smirks, twitches or starbusrts to distract or enrage the reader, it looks perfectly normal.

That Palin has become famous for her malapropisms is unjust; she makes them only rarely. Yes, she occasionally turns nouns into verbs, in the manner of a low-level manager who has earned her MBA online from the University of Phoenix, but not so often as to make the trait definitive. Palin’s regional hokeyness resides mainly in her Mat-Su Valley accent, not in any turns of phrase, and in any case, is probably affected. (Palin is far from the only person to use pronunciation as a signifier. In Honor Thy Father, Gay Talese describes mafiosi talking in outgrown Brooklyn accents, fearful of being taken for what they’d become — suburbanites. Russell Baker recalls Estes Kefauver pouring an extra soupcon of molasses into his voice while campaigning in the South.)

What’s more, Palin’s style of speaking and Elizabeth’s aren’t very far apart at all. On the positive side, both deal in the currency of high drama, coining ringing phrases calculated to denounce, extol or exhort. There is no conversation in either of them, as there was in Catherine the Great, and as there is in Tony Blair. On the negative side, both Palin and Elizabeth are capable of rambling, although the run-on sentence did not have so bad a name in early modern England as it would later acquire.

Now, a very good case could be made that Elizabeth exercised these traits more deftly than Palin has managed to do. If that’s true, Palin’s hardly to blame. No disrespect to Chuch Heath, but he can’t have been nearly so perfect a model for the grand manner as Henry VIII. Also, Elizabeth lived in a society that expected a sovereign to comport herself with some swagger — consider the endless ragging James I took for his stuttering, his knocked knees and his Scottish accent. Any American politician who dares to strut is bound to make at least half the electorate fear for its civil liberties. President Obama found this out when he spoke about turning back the rising tides; before anyone could say “junk science,” pundits compared him to King Canute, and before long, were fretting about labor camps.

But enough. To give you an idea of what I mean, go back, cick the link, and watch Helen Mirren recite the original. If you try, you can hear Palin rasp and wink her way through it, too. If it helps, imagine her delivering the speech in response to something smaller than a looming invasion — say, Essex had hacked into her diary and was writing a tell-all book, or someone had asked a gotcha question about tunnage and poundage.

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