John McCaslin

Not since its famous alumnus Bill Clinton launched his bid for the presidency nearly two decades ago has an American politician been the subject of so much curiosity among faculty and students of England's Oxford University.

Whereas one week ago we might have been referring to Barack Obama, it is now the incredibly unlikely persona of political newcomer Sarah Palin on the minds and lips of the world's leading thinkers and scholars.

While most "working journalists" were holed up in Minneapolis-St. Paul to witness the Republican Party nominate its surprise ticket to the White House, yours truly was ducking into an extremely narrow alley called St. Helen's Passage (formerly Hell's Passage), twisting my way through a maze of medieval stone walls, and discovering a rare empty stool at the Turf Tavern, its foundations dating to 13th-century Oxford.

The intimate bar, consisting of low ceilings (people were much shorter in the 1200s) and timbered beams, is one of literally dozens of colorful pubs nestled within the nooks and crannies of the ancient campus, where sipping ale while debating the world's affairs have gone hand in hand since the patron of education, King Alfred, first founded the historic university.

On this night, and indeed in the days to follow, whether at the Turf Tavern frequented by a young Mr. Clinton, or in a darkened booth at the nearby Eagle and Child, the favorite hangout of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, all anybody could talk about was the unexpected injection of Mrs. Palin into the already intriguing 2008 presidential fray.

It was no different tuning in to British television and radio, with English women from Bath to Birmingham flooding the studio lines to say how dare the men suggest that it is a mother's place to stay at home and raise the children while the fathers are out pursuing their politics.

Even British men, particularly academic types at Oxford comfortable in their black robes and polished nails, are quite impressed that Mrs. Palin is able to hang a moose up to dry with her laundry. The verbal consensus while necking their pints: Mr. Obama has much to fret.

Adequately filled with foam and fodder, I departed the Turf Tavern through its walled beer garden, where on chillier nights patrons traditionally roast marshmallows over coal fires, resulting in a sweet smelling pillow of smoke wafting through the low-hanging tree branches.

Or at least I assume that's the aroma of marshmallows.

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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