Sunday, June 05, 2011


I know it seems as if the elite media never stopped taking Sarah Palin seriously, but it's always been unclear whether the press was treating her as a potential political leader of this country or as a celebrity trainwreck on the order of Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan. So, yes, the press dutifully followed along on her Self-Aggrandizement by Bus Tour -- but it's not clear whether that was taking her seriously. This article by Mark Leibovich, from the Week in Review section of today's New York Times, really does seem to be taking her seriously -- primarily because she taps into elite journalists' self-hatred:

If a maybe-candidate for president does not issue an "official schedule" to the news media as she tours around in something that closely resembles a campaign bus, did the tour really happen?

You betcha it did -- as evidenced by the all-terrain coverage that, true to precedent, trailed Sarah Palin wherever she motored last week.

how dare she disregard the media like that?

...By "winging it," or at least not telling journalists where she was headed next and leading them on what some called a "wild goose chase," Ms. Palin once again showed contempt for a class of people she plainly despises....

Why didn't I see this coming? It's no surprise that she'd get mainstream journalists to pay attention to her while insulting them. But I didn't grasp that she'd gain their respect because she's insulting them. And yet that makes perfect sense: for thirty years Republicans and right-wing pundits have denounced "the liberal media," and the response by mainstream journalists has been to internalize all the criticism and bend over backwards to avoid living up to the criticism -- even though it's obvious that they can never do enough to satisfy the right, and even though they've had it pointed out to them that the right is merely "working the refs." Well, now it's Palin "working the refs," and reporters are masochistically saying, "Yes, work me again!"

Witness just how much respect Leibovich seems to have for what Palin is doing, and how much contempt for his own colleagues:

This is all part of the familiar Palin approach. Call it "The Politics of Doing Whatever the Heck I Want." There she went again, disrespecting the almighty "process," playing by her own rules and seeming not to give a flying hoot what anyone thought about it....

These are many of the same usual suspects who complained that Ms. Palin had breached campaign decorum by showing up in New Hampshire last week on the very day Mitt Romney was formally announcing his presidential campaign there. Never mind that Mr. Romney has essentially been running for president for six years (or since kindergarten). He had designated Thursday as his "announcement day," and, the decorum police felt, the rest of the field was obliged to stay out of the way in deference to the "unwritten rule" that says Mr. Romney should have the stage to himself on these special occasions. Likewise, the political media was obliged to treat Mr. Romney's impeccably choreographed non-news event as a news event. And everyone pretty much abided by their designated "unwritten rules;" everyone except Mrs. Palin, for whom "unwritten rules" are just another category of the political orthodoxy to run over like roadkill....

In this account, we're in high school, and the reporters -- Leibovich's peers -- are pathetic loser nerds who play by all the rules. Romney, you'll notice, is also a pathetic loser nerd. (Brendan Nyhan has argued recently that the press coverage of Romney this year is similar to the coverage of Al Gore in 2000; Nyhan focuses on accusations of "inauthenticity" faced by both candidates, but I think this kind of contemptuous coverage of Romney also resembles what Gore faced.) And Sarah Palin? She's the cool one, the rebel, the rule-breaker. She's Brando. She's James Dean.


Even if Palin does run for president -- and I don't think she will -- I suspect there's a limit to how far she can take this: sooner or later she always goes off on a tangent, obsessing for days over a personal slight. I think she probably can't sustain the image of the cool maverick playing reporters for chumps, while the reporters like Leibovich applaud her contempt for them.

But I can't help wondering if some guy the press has a mancrush on -- Ryan, Huntsman, Barbour, Daniels, Christie -- could follow this Palin script and really become "the cool guy" by breaking rules. Imagine if one of those guys said, "Screw you -- you want to know where I'm heading, follow me." Especially, at times, on a motorcycle. (Yeah, I know -- hard to picture that in the case of Christie or Barbour or Daniels. But think of Huntsman or Ryan, and bear with me.) I think the man-love between low-self-esteem male reporters and a candidate doing that -- playing hard to get -- would only increase. And if that candidate could combine the freewheeling, contemptuous on-the-road thing with occasional hints of deep policy thought, why, the reactions from reporters would sound like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally channeled through Led Zeppelin's Marshall stacks.

I'm not arguing that Palin gets no respect because she's a woman -- obviously, she's getting a hell of a lot of respect right now (a lot more than, say, Tim Pawlenty, who, last time I looked, was male). But I think someone who tapped into that bro thing the way George W. Bush did with reporters in 2000 could really pull this off.

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