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Walter Rodgers

Our misplaced obsession with Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin's supporters and critics need to calm down. She’s a celebrity, not a future president.

By Walter Rodgers / February 3, 2011

Sarah Palin buttons are displayed for sale outside the Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nevada, on Jan. 29.

Max Whittaker/Reuters

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Sarah Palin is like a good movie that you don’t want to end. To tea party supporters and millions of Republicans, she epitomizes Frank Capra’s drama “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – in which the Washington elite shun the hero, whose straight talk and rogue style win the hearts of ordinary Americans. To others, she calls to mind the 1963 comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” – in which a pack of comedians pursue an elusive treasure that makes fools of them all.

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Not presidential material

The mere mention of her name can trigger hysteria in polite company. Perhaps now is a good time for supporters and detractors alike to calm down and rethink Ms. Palin. She has been unfairly maligned at times, but so was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Politics is as brutal as professional boxing. If you get in the ring, you have to learn to take a hard punch, and lots of them. Palin is certainly a resilient political figure, and a genius for promoting her brand, but she isn’t presidential material – and the GOP knows it. Her staying power is that she has risen above the stature of mere conservative politician, subject to the rules of the game. Rather she’s become a true entertainer who happens to be wildly popular among some conservative voters.

Part of Palin’s success lies in her uncanny ability to always look good on camera. Her natural beauty and charm help, but only someone with her magnetic confidence could pose with a half-dozen men clad in fur vests and Viking helmets and still have a thriving public career. Former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis can attest to how quickly bad photographs can ruin a candidate’s presidential hopes. Remember Mr. Dukakis in 1988 grinning atop a tank while wearing a helmet, grabbing a machine gun, and sporting a necktie?

Because the camera loves her, she has been featured in Vogue and Runner’s World. Supporters can’t get enough. Opponents can’t look away.

In American politics, a candidate’s success often relies less on talent than on burlesque. Palin fits neatly into that paradigm. She’s practically a caricature of President Reagan’s brand of conservatism – rugged individualism; instinctive mistrust of government, elites, and intellectuals; and hard-core patriotism; all promoted with Hollywood-worthy one-liners – updated for the social-media age.

Flattering the mob

Nearly a century ago, H.L. Mencken prophetically wrote, “Today there is no longer any question of statesmanship, in any real sense, in our politics. The only way to success in American public life lies in flattering and kowtowing to the mob.” Palin does that better than anyone. Who else could claim to embody the vastness of Alaska, lead a movement of “mama grizzlies,” and hawk a recipe for moose stew, all while weighing in on policy debates?

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