Our misplaced obsession with Sarah Palin

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

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

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.

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?

Palin has become our safety valve – an entertainer and bauble to enjoy for a few more months. She is the bridge that will take us from the turbulent present into the pomposity of next year’s primaries. But she’s not likely to last. Republicans want to defeat President Obama too much to nominate someone with unelectably bad poll numbers. Just 19 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of her, while 57 percent do not, a recent CBS/New York Times poll found.

Though she has used poor judgment at times, Palin is attacked viciously by critics. After the massacre in Arizona, they blamed Palin for contributing to a climate of hate. (On Twitter, some openly called for her death.) She rejected that linkage in a video message that used the term “blood libel” to strike back at critics. More controversy ensued, but the historic meaning went over the heads of most Americans. I found myself explaining the medieval, anti-Semitic roots of “blood libel” to a conservative Republican friend who said, “Oh, I thought she was talking about ‘bloody liberals.’ ”

Was it bad judgment for her website to place what looked like rifle cross hairs over Democratic congressional districts? You bet. But it was trivial compared with George W. Bush’s decision to take the country into a trumped-up war in Iraq that killed more than 4,400 Americans. That was criminal.

Palin was ridiculed last November when she misspoke, “Obviously we have to stand with our North Korean allies.” That’s small potatoes compared with President Ford insisting in 1976, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

I wince when I recall the bearskin she draped over the sofa in her gubernatorial office. But there was no outrage when LBJ invited guests to his Texas ranch to shoot virtually tame deer.

Definitely not boring

Many object to Palin because she is different and sometimes outrageous, but at least she is not boring – the cardinal sin in public life. Americans should not be exercised but amused by Palin. Some of the indignation of left-wing, Palin-hating columnists seems contrived or naive or both. The only way Palin will get the GOP nomination is if Republicans decide Obama is unbeatable and she becomes the party’s sacrificial lamb.

An ABC news poll, among others, indicates 67 percent of the American people don’t think Palin is qualified to be president. With those numbers, she’s no threat to anyone. As Jane Austen, the great observer of human behavior, wrote in “Northanger Abbey,” “You should never fret about trifles.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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