america's sweetheart

Frank Rich and Adam Moss Discuss the Short, Hot Political Career of Sarah Palin

Adam: Hi, Frank. Sandwiched between Chris Christie’s withdrawal from a race he never entered and the news of Steve Jobs’s death, Sarah Palin announced that she, too, would not be running for president. No one paid much attention to this little historical milestone, so I thought maybe we should. Is this it — is it time to write Sarah Palin’s political obituary?

Frank: You probably can’t write anyone’s political obituary in America — not even Trump’s — because, as Nixon showed best, you can kick them when they’re down and still they come back for more. Even if she does prove to be finished in politics, Palin is in any case a potentially historic figure, anticipating and leading 21st-century right-wing populism before it had a name (tea party), indeed before Obama was in the White House. The movement she catalyzed remains a huge force in our politics. It intimidated the Establishment of her own party, forced a Democratic president to retreat from his party’s values, and holds Congress (and therefore the American government) hostage even as we speak. (And by the way, didn’t she sell magazines?)

A: Sure, for a little while people couldn’t get enough of the Barracuda — for a few weeks in September ‘08, it even looked as if she might single-handedly take back the election for McCain. Blue-staters view her with such dismissive contempt now they forget what an electrifying entrance she had in electoral politics. At least in part, that’s what was so powerful about her — her delight in courting the Establishment’s disdain, her rabid anti-elitism (I can’t think of a politician in my lifetime so fierce in this regard), her willingness (eagerness even) to appear dumb.

F: If you were a bit older, I suspect her rabid anti-elitism (and some, not all, of her views) would have reminded you, as they did me, of George Wallace in his 1968 presidential campaign: her ability to speak for aggrieved white people enraged by elites who, in their view, are condescending, too liberal, economically privileged, and inclined to give away the store to African-Americans and other minorities. The more the Establishment portrayed her as “dumb” — e.g., the Katie Couric interview — the more her constituency identified with her and cheered her on as “one of us.” And let’s not forget that there was a part of the GOP Establishment that pushed her on McCain and cynically promoted her anti-Establishment persona. This was especially the case with the neo-con crowd at the Weekly Standard, headed by Bill Kristol, who also championed and defended Palin in his columns on the Times OpEd page. The supposed conservative intellectual Michael Barone went so far as to liken Palin to FDR and claimed that Palin’s liberal critics despised her because she “did not abort her Down’s Syndrome baby.”

A: As it happens, I’m in Illinois now and have just passed through Dixon — boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, as it reminds you on every corner. And I was thinking of how relatively benign Reagan now seems, after years of W. and Cheney. Wallace still seems terrifying — though you’re right, I only remember the ‘68 campaign through 11-year-old eyes. Palin herself invokes Reagan all the time. In what sense do you think she’s his descendant (including none)? Also, before we leave your intriguing Wallace analogy, I feel I just have to circle back to the question of race. Do you think Palin would have ever had her historical moment if the Democratic political nemesis of the time had been say, Joe Biden (white guy), instead of Barack Obama?

F: Your pilgrimage to Dixon is quite impressive. I guess it’s too much to hope that this odyssey will take you as well to Blooming Grove, Ohio, birthplace of that most romantic of Republican presidents, Warren Harding. Actually, Palin has less in common with Reagan than with Harding — a small-town guy loyal to his dubious cronies, with a quasi-background in journalism, photogenic good-looks, a real gift for public speaking, and no particular aptitude for or interest in governing. Palin seemed to know little more about Reagan than she did about Russia — mainly some wiki-facts and quotes that she could exploit for her own self-promotion. As for race: If her nemesis had been a white guy (or woman) rather than Obama, she probably would not have gotten as much traction as she did. The right would still have been enraged at any Democrat who took the presidency (as it was at Clinton, “the first black president”), but Obama’s race was the straw that broke the elephant’s back.

A: Have to make Blooming Grove on the next trip — I love presidential birthplaces. Harding, huh? Confess I’m pretty ignorant about him. But I’m interested that you invoked his looks. Palin’s looks figured so much into the consideration of her — as did (does) Michele Bachmann’s. People have talked about this new political archetype, the conservative fox. What’s that about, do you think? And then, is it possible to assess whether she has been “good or bad” for women in politics? I’m inclined to say good — in the sense that she has made a woman politician seem more commonplace — and, with the yin and yang of Palin and Hillary Clinton simultaneously on the scene, gender seems less relevant to politics generally, less tied to a particular ideology or even personality type. Having said that, it also seems obvious that the Palin phenomenon would never have happened if it were Todd wearing the political pants in the family. The Grizzly Momness of Sarah was at the heart of her identity.

F: You must make up for lost time with Harding. His brief but notorious reign is one of the more salacious guilty pleasures of American history. When he died suddenly mid-term — under seemingly mysterious circumstances at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco — the country mourned his brief presidency as if he were JFK. Posthumously his reputation was engulfed by the ceaseless revelations of Teapot Dome and other scandals, including a mistress with a far longer White House shelf life than Monica Lewinsky. (Harding and his paramour turned up to add some peripheral corruption to Boardwalk Empire by the way). But to return to our less glamorous current day, I do think that Palin’s looks mattered more to her base than the rest of us. (It is, after all, Roger Ailes who said he promoted her on Fox News in part because he found her “hot.”) Are she and Bachmann a new “grizzly Mom” archetype for the right? In packaging perhaps — but to me they are new, updated flowerings of the Phyllis Schlafly take-no-prisoners conservative Mom prototype, born in the Goldwater era. Was Palin’s candidacy “good” for women? Well, good for women who share her right-wing, anti-choice views, I guess, in the same way that Roy Cohn was “good” for gay right-wingers who shared his worldview. But, yes, as a general principle, the more women in politics, the more varied in ideology and personality, the better it is for all of us.

A: At least so far, Sarah Palin has been a very curious comet — burning very bright and fading out fast. She still has a constituency but it’s getting smaller, and now she has to share it with the likes of Bachmann and also, in a more complicated way, Rick Perry. History is full of figures who gave initial power to a movement but who were unable to survive that movement’s growth. Let me give you a multiple choice: Did she fade because she was never real/authentic in the first place? Because she played the political game poorly? Because she was too transparent in selling out her political values for personal gain? Because she was brought down by the Republican Establishment that, as you pointed out, cynically promoted her in the first place? All, none of the above?

F: A combination, but all self-inflicted. She had given voice and standing to the most passionate and growing sector of her party — the anti-Bush, anti-Romney populist right. And then she stopped riding the wave and abdicated — first by quitting public office, then by falling in love with celebrity, show business, and muckraking, and finally by sloppy self-destruction (her behavior surrounding the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords.) In the end, she cared more about bonding with Greta van Susteren than with the tea party hoi polloi. But with a different path, she could have been the presumptive nominee. Her dispersed constituency is today divided among Perry, Cain, Bachmann, and to some extent Paul. The sum of that bloc dwarfs the 22–25 percent of the GOP that likes “front-runner” Romney. But what’s your take on her flame-out?

A: All of the above, certainly. Where I guess I feel differently than you is that I’m not sure there was ever a scenario in which she could have been the nominee. She was too embarrassing to most of that 75 percent, in a way that Bachmann and even Cain aren’t (I do think that has to do with her intelligence, which is not to say that she has none, but she’s pure instinct and that doesn’t fully work yet — thank God — in our politics). Mostly I think she has absolutely zero interest in governing. She’s a pop figure, not, ultimately a political one.

And you, final thoughts? A hundred years from now, is anybody going to be teaching Sarah Palin in high school?

F: Her historic fate may be directly tied to the as yet untold fate of the tea party and the right-wing insurgency it represents. So she could prove to be a footnote or a prophet. Of more immediate concern will be the travails of Fox News, not to mention TV tabloid and reality shows, now that they no longer have the various camera-ready Palins (plus Levi) to feed them. And book publishing! As we speak, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue has fallen to 534 on the Amazon list, Levi’s Deer in the Headlights is at 18,714, Bristol’s Not Afraid of Life at 18,483, Jacob Weisberg’s Palinisms at 241,893, and the paperback of Palin’s own latest, America by Heart, out on October 25 from Murdoch, at 1,995,415. How much more bad news can the American economy take?

A: Thanks, Frank. Readers with questions should write to Until next time.

Frank Rich and Adam Moss Discuss the Short, Hot Political Career of Sarah Palin