When Bristol Palin lost on Dancing With the Stars last night, somewhere out in the television audience her mother, Sarah, must have heaved a quiet sigh of relief. After all, could her daughter getting more famous actually be any good for the potential presidential candidate? Every time a family member of hers has made the news so far, it’s been for something controversial. Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, the more reporters scrutinized Todd, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trigg, the more cartoonish she herself seemed: Was Todd really a member of an Alaskan secessionist group? Was Bristol really going to marry that thug from high school who got her pregnant, or was this just a sham? And that other baby, the adorable one with the Down syndrome — was it even hers? Every time one of the Palins steps into the spotlight, Sarah probably holds her breath a little.
This weekend, a lot of pundits were talking about the possibility that Palin could be a viable presidential candidate in 2012 in very serious terms. But the very same week, her 16-year-old daughter, Willow, was making headlines for having a boyfriend who may or may not sell marijuana, and for calling a classmate a “faggot” publicly on Facebook. This was the week after 5 million Americans watched a boy sneak past Palin herself to get upstairs to Willow’s room on the reality television show Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Normal teen shenanigans? Sure. Things moderate-to-conservative voters want to know are going on in the household of a potential president? Not quite — they could barely handle it when a pair of popular, pretty college girls got drunk every now and then.
I’d argue Sarah Palin has already moved too far into the realm of trashy celebreality to actually have a real run in 2012 — I actually think she reached that point back when her daughter appeared on the cover of Us Weekly announcing her two-week-long engagement to Levi Johnston without having told her mother — but it seems like most people disagree. Either way, she’s certainly on the borderline. And yet, she continues to send her children in front of the camera, whether it’s on her own reality show or DWTS. My guess is that she thinks that the kids have the same hunger for fame as she does. In that case, this concession is probably her way of saying sorry for messing with their lives so much in her quest for power and celebrity — if they have to endure the spotlight, they might as well benefit from it, too, right? Hence the decision to put Bristol, who has experienced the worst humiliation of any of the Palins through her highly scrutinized teen pregnancy, on the dancing show. “This is just the ticket!” Palin may have trilled. “Why not invite all of America to critique, as usual, but this time have them do it every week while you are wearing a feathered leotard?”
Of course, this backfired. The grueling experience actually made the poor girl pack on weight and appear miserable — and that was before the rumors that the tea party was attempting to sway the vote for political purposes. So (SPOILER ALERT) what if Bristol had won, instead of the unarguably more skilled Jennifer Grey? How would it have looked if shadowy voters with a political vendetta had placed an inexperienced Palin woman in the pole position because of some sort of underdog mentality, when a more qualified candidate was cast aside for not being as “down to earth” and “relatable”? It would have become a joke, obviously — a joke that was a perfect metaphor for what could happen if people vote for Sarah Palin in 2012 because of some vague feeling that she’s “like us,” rather than because she’s the best candidate. Sure, it feels good at the moment, but then you realize you’ve made a mockery of a thing that you actually kind of care about.
But the real bullet Palin dodged last night isn’t this one: A gag about Bristol-as-metaphor-for-Sarah would have gained traction only with the Daily Show set. The big problem, had Bristol won, is that she’d have gotten even more famous. That spells trouble for Sarah, as we’ve learned. So even though I’m sure Palin wanted her daughter to do well and feel good about herself, I have no doubt she also heaved a sigh of relief when she didn’t win. Having a family member win third place in a popular show like Dancing With the Stars is nothing to shake a stick at — and neither is the ability to continue being the most famous and controversial member of your household.
This post was modified from an earlier version.