Tomorrow I'll send in a renewal application for my passport, which expires next year. They last for a decade, and I've had mine since 1999. Since then I've had the great fortune to visit parts of Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. And I've been to Mexico and Canada, so North America is covered. I'm pretty sure I'll get to Australia at some point in my life, and--why not?--perhaps even Antarctica. I can't imagine life without a passport.
But I'm in the minority. Most Americans don't possess passports, as the statistics clearly show. Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin's decision to get a passport only two years ago has aroused some criticism, but I think this is excessive and misplaced. In last week's interview with Katie Couric (which I''m just catching up with this weekend), Palin skillfully deflected the charge that she is incurious about the world as only being the concern of elitists who have lots of money to send their kids abroad after college. Shrewd Democrats would do well not to hammer the passport agenda too much; it plays right into Republican hands about how the Democratic Party is out of touch.
But there are more principled reasons not to dwell on Palin's passport. Perhaps her statement to Couric that she's gained perspective about the world from "books" and "education" rings hollow; maybe it was rehearsed. But there is no doubt that there are many Americans who are curious about the world but do not have the means to see most of it firsthand. These people go to public libraries; they look up web sites; they read books. They don't have a passport because they can't use it, not because they are rubes.
And supposedly, these are the everyday people that Democrats care about.
Don't get me wrong: I do not think that Palin would be a good Vice President. At that level, we need people who have renewed their passports several times; Joe Biden is one of the Senate's foremost authorities on foreign affairs. But the merciless ridicule of Palin symbolizes merciless ridicule of millions of other Americans. This is what we--especially those of us who dwell in coastal bubbles where the passports are more plentiful--should always guard against.