Friday, July 03, 2009

I agree with Steve that the much-vaunted Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin doesn't really have enough new information to qualify as the hot expose it's supposed to be. (On the other hand, this kind of late mopping-up operation might be necessary in a culture with a attention span and a collective memory as short as ours.) But the reaction to it among Republican pooh-bahs has been fascinating. The cult of Palin itself is close enough to being unprecedented to deserve our best eye-rolling scrutiny. Since when do political parties latch onto the previously unknown lower half of a disastrously failed presidential campaign as their symbol and savior? How many people, in the wake of their respective fiascoes, clamored for their party to be remade in the image of William E. Miller, or Sargent Shriver, or Geraldine Ferraro, or Jack Kemp? Dan Quayle, who got to stick around the national stage for four years, inspired no deep, lasting following despite the best efforts of David Broder himself to assure us that anyone who rose to such heights must, by definition, have the potential to be a dandy leader. Joe Lieberman's ascension to would-be vice-president marked the turning point in the browning of his reputation.

One difference between Palin and all these people, with the possible exception of Quayle, is that they all had beliefs and causes. Some of them were utter hacks, but they didn't get into politics just to admire how their teeth shone in their own commercials, and they weren't blank slates onto which you could project any qualities that struck your fancy. Palin was presented to us as a tabula rasa, and she's keeping it that way. That's why she inspires love among a broader stretch of the Republican party than the war hero John McCain ever could; McCain had actual beliefs, which confused and alarmed the party members who detected some that they disagreed with, and even though he demonstrated a winning ability to throw them overboard for the sake of a six-pack of votes, the damage was done.

Palin charmed the old maverick by playing a role--that of the ballsy frontier babe who talked common sensical and took on the special interests with a kid on each arm--that she knew he'd find appealing, even though it had next to no basis in reality. Then, even as McCain began to see through her act and detach himself from her, she won over the party base with her mean-MILF wiles and with the "attacks" on her from the liberal media conspiracy. Katie Couric actually sandbagged her by asking her unanswerable tough questions, such as what magazines could she name? The conservative media love to harp on how much everyone outside the holy circle, which includes self-described "liberals" but McCain loyalists too, "hates" Palin; in the absence of any serious accomplishments of her own that Palin can point to, the hatred of her enemies is the essential component in any argument about why she deserves to be the party's figurehead.

I think that Steve is a little imprecise when he argues that people hate Palin not for the petty reasons that Republican spinners claim but, rather, for her "politics." Aside from the fact that the word "hate" is a kind of strong--I think it's more appropriate to regard Palin the way I think most people regard Heidi and Spencer Pratt, with a mixture of bedazzlement and horror--I'm not sure that Palin has anything that can really be called "politics." She seems to have gotten into the business because she hadn't had her fill of the world's attention and she was getting a little long in the tooth for beauty contests. George W. Bush was presented as a nice, average guy who'd do what he was told by the experts with whom he would surround himself, but it turned out that he had some serious ideological convictions. Palin is, in Josh Marshall's carefully measured words, a "moron" who'll say whatever she needs to say to hear her name cheered.

Eventually, after she's spent enough time in the public eye, she'll get married to certain positions, only because she'll have parroted them too many times in public to continue to shape shift freely; that's what eventually happened to Newt Gingrich, who first entered Congress as a self-styled "environmentalist" before deciding that the fastest route to national fame was by attacking big-name Democrats. But for all the talk about how she's Jan Brady with a hunting license and so a natural fit for conservative icon, the real reason that Palin naturally gravitates towards Republican audiences is that angry resentment oozes from her every pore. Like Bush, she has too much natural loathing of anyone who criticizes or questions her or even knows something she doesn't to ever give them the satisfaction of learning anything. That's why it reflects badly--creepily--on the Republican party that so many of its movers and shakers not only want to boost and protect Palin, but think they're doing their party a favor by doing so. To simplify things a bit, she's what George W. Bush, the guy they're trying to forget, would have been like if he hadn't even known as much about governing as a rock would have picked up by osmosis if the powers that be had carried it around in their pockets for forty years. I'm not sure how much damage Palin could conceivably do on the national stage, or how much of it would end up spreading outside the Republican party to the larger world, but if people who aren't conservative loonies and opportunists want to speed up her departure from national politics to a hosting job at QVC, they might try ignoring her. If Republicans were deprived of their sense that "the left" despises this silly person, they might realize that they can't think of another reason why they care about her.

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