Friday, November 7, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Palin

OK, I’ll admit it. I miss Sarah Palin already. I know she’s still around, but mostly as a living obituary. Whether or not she lost the election for John McCain is irrelevant, she’s just good entertainment, the rare public figure that chronically writes its own satire. Case in point: one of Tina Fey’s most devastating SNL bits consisted of looking into the camera and quoting Ms. Palin virtually verbatim. I will admit that sometimes the characterizations went a bit over the top. The one where the actress playing Ms. Palin talks about “When Putin rears his head” was especially egregious... Oh wait, that was Sarah herself! But is there more to the story, and are we writing her off too quickly? Can she make the lampooning work for her?

One of the most delicious things about her is the fuzzy line between the satire and the truth. Supporters who claim that she is a victim of the “Liberal Media”, who turned her into a caricature for political purposes, completely miss the most obvious truth about her: she is a caricature, someone who has benefitted from a most serendipitous rise to prominence through transparent, single-minded ambition/ opportunism, exquisite timing and luck, and a chirpy obliviousness of what any of it means beyond fulfillment of her enormous, and growing, yet vacuous ego. And in every case, she's used the caricature, even added to it.

I suspect Ms. Palin “discovered” herself during her participation in a beauty pageant, or at least discovered her inordinate need for attention. But it was as a small town mayor (after some training on the city council) that she put together the Holy Trinity of Sarah: Attention, Opportunism, and Narrow (some would say feeble)-Minded Pettiness. There is ample evidence that she ran Wasilla much as you would expect from a narcissistic beauty queen, especially one whose primary intellectual grounding came from evangelical religion. She promoted her friends, feuded with opponents, and apparently tried to exercise her power to ban books she didn’t approve of (moving to fire the recalcitrant librarian, and only backing off in the face of a recall threat), demonstrating both a lack of the basic understanding of prudent governance, and a whopping sense of entitlement and power, however petty the issue might be. She was particularly savvy at both attracting and marshaling support, however, and was reelected. Somewhere along the way, she also picked up that ridiculous, faux Fargo accent that seems to be, at least in Alaska, unique to her.

While in Wasilla, she made alliances with Senator Stevens, the most powerful man in the state, and a powerful DC-based lobbying firm, both of which she used to enrich her town’s budget. Unfortunately, her boondoggle of a public-works project, the Wasilla sports complex (which is a tale of greed, stupidity, and incompetence to lengthy to detail here), as well as her general fiscal mismanagement, left her town $22 million in debt, despite the $27 million in federal funds she brought in. But of course, this was to be expected, because attention and power, not governance or responsibility, were the things that mattered most to her. And quite frankly, there wasn’t enough of either in Wasilla. But things were about to change...

After failing to win a 5-way race for Lt. Governor, and after the winning governor replaced his own state senate seat with his daughter (which many assert left her furious), Palin accepted an appointment to the state energy commission, where she served briefly as its chair and head of its ethics dept. She left amid recriminations of her fellow commission members for ethical violations. It would be something she used again, successfully, against the governor.

As for her tenure as governor, I could go on and on about hiring personal, and unqualified, friends from Wassila to staff the Alaska government, the Troopergate and Bridge to Nowhere fiascos, etc., but again, it doesn’t matter. Those were just more of the same characteristics that define her administrative indifference and pettiness. I have every reason to believe that at some point (born out by her falling approval numbers once it was widely disseminated what she’d actually been doing), her constituents would have become aware of just how far the gulf is between her reach and grasp. But her impeccable luck and timing would strike again very soon, in a phone call from John McCain. Say what you will about her, but give her one thing, she is spectacular at rising to, and perhaps beyond, her level of incompetence.

It’s fair to say that Sarah’s apparently inerrant belief that everything is about her is somewhat mitigated, at least in the presidential campaign, by the fact that an erratic and struggling McCain campaign rolled her out in such a way as to make everything precisely about her. While I’m sure at least some staffers had reservations about her grasp of national issues, hence the need to hide her from the media for as long as possible, they underestimated the pure animal attraction that Ms. Palin has to both the limelight and opportunity, and apparently, them to her. As the campaign raged (and the GOP ticket fell further behind), more and more it seemed that Palin had shifted from being a vital team member to being her own candidate (perhaps already thinking of 2012). Ultimately, she had to be barred from speaking to the American people on election night, seemingly having no clue that she had just lost an election. Perhaps in her mind, she hadn’t. She did show a remarkable deftness at the politically-requisite grand hypocrisy, evident in her comfort at attacking the opponent for wanting to re-distribute wealth, while simultaneously promoting her own record of taking money from the oil companies of Alaska, and re-distributing it to the citizens (which might also have explained some of those high approval ratings). Not to mention the further hypocrisy of mocking the Democrats as pro-regulation and anti-business, while stating that she "stood up" to the oil companies.

Palin is very much like George W. Bush in that her charisma is, while admittedly of the lowest common denominator, extremely potent, and coupled with a ferocious need for power, an almost comical mixture of cock-surety and utter lack of self-examination, glued together with aggression in the place of thoughtfulness, presents itself as not one but three caricatures: the one seen by the partisan supporter, the one seen by everyone else, and the one seen by and about herself. I have every reason to believe that neither Sarah nor W. has any real idea that the “misunderestimations” of the public are in fact the reality of the situation. Hence, they are incapable of changing the behavior, and in fact retreat more fully into it, using it, both with predatory calculation and unintentionally comical buffoonery. Both are masters of turning less-than-adequate into larger-than-life. 

America is both a forgiving and forgetful nation, two maxims that Sarah Palin will surely count on moving forward. Bush will melt into the past surprisingly quickly, and Ms. Palin will be able to re-cast herself yet again, perhaps as a victim, certainly as a star. Ironically, her very incompetence will likely end up serving her well, as she gains time in the public eye and smoothes out a few of the rougher edges. It may come to be seen as her development stage, stuffed under the populist persona and feckless charm still well established. Name recognition counts, and she now has that in spades, plus she has the “outsider” status nailed with a Democratic government in place. All she needs now is some time. Without a higher authority to answer to, it is possible that she may cobble together a better organization for her political furtherance, or at the very least, a less conflicted one. (Word of advice though Sarah. If you think the Dems and the media play rough, wait ‘til you get a load of the good-old-boys you did an end-around on.)

So laugh off, or worse, forget Sarah Palin at your peril. Relegate her to the status of a failure if you will, as a bitter McCain staffer did by labeling her and her husband “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast”. But remember, she’s lost before, and runner-up status is usually a prelude to something bigger. A runner-up beauty queen became mayor. A runner-up Lt. Governor became Governor. In Sarah’s world, it makes perfect sense then that a runner-up VP could take the top job. Perhaps she’s not finished failing upward, because she’s already forgotten the failure, and already sees the next leap. It can’t happen again, can it? You betcha!


encina1 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
encina1 said...

Very scary, but a very poignant piece.

P Bryant (aka JerryMacicKobe) said...

we need emoticons to properly express the Palin phenomenon - Lol and dead banana for starters. And rest assured, we have seen the last of her in the Presidential spotlight because she has been rendered unelectable. At best, she was a cheap prop designed to attract the Hillary vote, and offer the conservative voters a chance to break barriers of their own. At worst, she was...

Well, as you described.