Sarah Palin doesn’t deserve the ridicule she receives from the mainstream media, nor does she merit the adulation she inspires from her legions of fans. The over-reaction on each side feeds the super-heated response on the other: if she didn’t get regularly mocked and mauled by elite commentators, she’d never be taken seriously as a presidential possibility by Tea Party conservatives, and if she weren’t trumpeted as the second coming of Reagan by rightwing true believers she wouldn’t absorb the obsessive abuse directed at her by prestige pundits.
In reality, she draws disproportionate denunciation and wildly inflated adoration for the same reason – an undeniable factor so awkward and embarrassing that most observers feel uncomfortable acknowledging it in public.
The great Paul Revere debate constitutes a particularly silly example of the irrational obsession with Palin’s personality. Of course, she badly bungled the attempt to summarize the famous Midnight Ride, erroneously suggesting that Revere’s prime purpose involved warning the British, not rousing the Colonial Minutemen. But her clumsy handling of American history hardly constituted an unprecedented gaffe for prominent politicians: in 1992, Vice Presidential candidate Al Gore strode into Jefferson’s home at Monticello, gestured at busts of Adams and Franklin and blankly asked a guide, “Who are these guys?” The same Harvard-educated political prince also mistranslated the national motto “E Pluribus Unum,” suggesting it meant “out of one, many.” Meanwhile, Joe Biden, campaigning in 2008, suggested that FDR rallied the country during the Great Depression with his inspiring performances on TV – a major feat given the fact that the television medium didn’t arrive in American homes until a few years after Roosevelt’s death.
Unfortunately, rather than simply correcting her goofy Revere’s ride stumble, Governor Palin and her defenders tried to insist she was correct after all, twisting accounts of one of the most celebrated episodes in American history beyond recognition. By the same token, Palinistas respond to exaggerated media contempt for the former Governor by offering their own exaggerated praise for a record of public achievement that counts at best as thin and flimsy. They try to justify her resignation after completing scarcely half of her term as governor by asserting that she’s still more qualified for high office than was Barack Obama when he first sought the presidency– an assertion that’s not only inaccurate but utterly irrelevant, since his candidacy in 2012 will boast four full years of experience (full of dubious achievements, to be sure) in the world’s most powerful position.
Sarah Palin hardly counts as uniquely unqualified for high office—after all, Geraldine Ferraro became a surprise nominee for Vice President in 1984 after barely five years as an obscure Congresswoman from Queens, her only elective office. But the former governor also lacks distinctive talents, eloquence, political posture or accomplishments that would lead reasonable people to select her as the single individual among 300 million best-equipped to lead the nation. While she certainly boasts a solidly conservative perspective on the issues, so do Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and several other present and perspective presidential candidates.
What drives the obsessive attention to every quirk and quibble regarding Sarah Palin, so that her seat-of-the pants bus tour of historic sites so easily upstaged the announcement of candidacy for frontrunner Mitt Romney?
The answer is that Governor Palin is pretty, sexy, and appealing to watch in nearly all circumstances. She gets more attention than other candidates for the same reason that beautiful young murder victims get more coverage than the plain, the overweight or the merely male.
With literally hundreds of new killings and disappearances every week, can anyone doubt that cable news selects those incidents worth reporting based in part on the availability of photos (or, better, videos) showing a lovely or sympathetic subject?
Along those lines, would Sarah Palin receive the same intensive press scrutiny if she resembled, say, the worthy but craggy Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine? Would John McCain have selected her as his running mate if she looked like a troll or a truck-driver? Has anyone yet proposed a reality show for any of the less attractive female politicians of the Twenty First Century?
It should hardly count as some shocking revelation that good looks matter in our celebrity obsessed culture, with beauty playing an especially important role for women. Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer wouldn’t have earned their anchor chairs if not for their striking and elegant appearance; nor would Angelina Jolie grace the covers of countless tabloids, or Palin-lookalike Tina Fey emerge as one of the most popular women on television, without their potent sex-appeal.
Recent years brought a new crop of political glamour girls to high elective office, including Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, former Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Congresswomen Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and many more. But Palin grabs disproportionate attention because she became the first youthful, zesty, fantasy-inspiring female to make a bid for national office. Yes, other women have campaigned for prior presidential nominations but Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Hillary Clinton never earned runner-up status in the Miss Alaska competition (or in any other beauty pageant).
Pointing to the influence of Governor Palin’s appearance in earning her exhaustive media attention, both negative and positive, will inevitably draw criticism as sexist, superficial, and dismissive. But what other aspect of her political personality counts as distinctive and singular enough to possibly explain the mad competing desires to run her down or build her up?
Rather than continuing the current cycle, with undeserved hostility feeding unwarranted support and then giving rise to still more inappropriate derision, it might uplift our political culture to put Sarah Palin in more proper perspective. She’s a sincere, frequently skillful political communicator who projects warmth, charisma, and intense likeability without an impressive history of accomplishment or substantive policy proposals, and who’s worthy of neither the pointedly personal disdain nor worship that mass media encourage with such irresponsible abandon.