Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Sarah Palin Porn?

by Jack Hitt

Harper's Magazine Notebook (June 2010)

Politics is high school with guns and more money.

- Frank Zappa


The ascension of Sarah Palin beyond the realm of mortal politician occurred sometime after her clumsy resignation as governor of Alaska and before the revelation that a recent speaking contract read like out-takes from This Is Spinal Tap, peevishly demanding that if a private jet is available then the "aircraft MUST BE a Lear 60 or larger (as defined by interior cabin space) for West Coast Events", that if cameras are allowed then "the number of clicks as appropriate for length of photo op: 45 minutes/75 clicks; 60 minutes/100 clicks and 90 minutes/125 clicks", and that onstage "Unopened bottled still water (two bottles) and bendable straws are to be placed in or near the wooden lectern". What, no bowls of green M&Ms?

To the Beltway huzzah of cable shows and newspaper columns, Palin is still understood as someone who might run for president. But she is a surging media phenom whose income since July 2009 is estimated at more than $12 million. Those political followers who dog her with their psychosexually fraught signs (PALIN = G W BUSH WITH LIPSTICK; ENTER PALIN, EXIT OBAMA) are now stage props about as crucial as that small crowd of audience members who awkwardly high-five Jay Leno at the beginning of each show. She no longer has supporters; she has a mass audience for whom she is a soap opera, a Horatio Alger story, trailer trash, a goddess, a lad-mag fantasy, and a glamorous star all in one. To say that Sarah Palin is a politican mistakes a splashy debut for the breathless melodrama that now constantly engulfs her. It's like saying that Paris Hilton is a hotel heiress or that Jon Gosselin is a husband.

The marriage of politics and entertainment has long been the Republican Party's greatest asset, but Palin's rise is different and has changed the old rules. Her climb to celebrity is through politics (not the other way around, as it was for Ronald Reagan and Sonny Bono). She is living proof of David Frum's recent heretical observation that "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox". And her achievement goes a long way toward explaining why the Democrats can't (and won't) gain political traction even with a popular president, an easily blamed predecessor, and the control of both chambers of Congress.


Modern television politics, we are usually told, begins with the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. If you look back to them, what you see is not merely the first presidential candidate to realize that packaged talking points come off convincingly on television but also an obituary for a lost political style. Critics always note that Nixon looked crummy in those debates - the five-o'clock shadow, the sweats, the sideways glances, the tugging at his infamous dewlaps. But those gestures are not what sank Nixon. They were merely symptoms of what Nixon was doing, and he was the last politician ever to do it on live TV: Nixon was thinking.

If Kennedy introduced politics to entertainment, Ronald Reagan merged them. His first memorable outing as a presidential candidate was in February 1980 in Nashua, New Hampshire. During a debate with George H W Bush, an angry moderator threatened to turn off Reagan's microphone. "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr Green!" Reagan seethed. The moderator's name was actually "Breen", but it didn't matter. The crowd roared its approval of such a bully moment, and after that Reagan never looked back. (Others did look back, many years later, to discover a precedent: Spencer Tracy, in the Frank Capra film State of the Union, finding himself in similar circumstances, fumed, "I'm paying for this broadcast!")

Sometimes Reagan's fusion of Hollywood and politics was breathtaking. (Both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal independently confirmed that they had heard Reagan tell a moving story about having filmed the death camps, even though he never left the United States during wartime. According to Reagan aide Michael Deaver, just because Reagan may have viewed "footage shipped home by the Signal Corps" and "saw this nightmare on film, not in person", that "did not mean he saw it less".) But those who compare Reagan's stagecraft to Palin's high school senior's gift for snark miss a basic difference. Reagan started his public career as a union president in 1947, was a Democrat and an FDR supporter, and in time made an honest progression to the right. He arrived there with decades of witty lines and conservative pearls. He could quip that "one way to make sure crime doesn't pay would be to let the government run it", or needle the press corps by saying, "Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement".

In other words, Reagan melded entertainment values with political nuance. Since then, the two parties haven't just had different ideologies; they've pursued them in entirely different political moods - not so much indicative versus subjunctive as triumphal versus tedious. In 1987, for instance, writer P J O'Rourke captured the essence of Reagan politics with his book Republican Party Reptile. Meanwhile, all the Democrats had to put forward that year was a doorstop called Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill. When Republicans do politics, it looks like vicious fun. When Democrats do politics, it feels like conscientious homework. Just after the recent health-care legislation passed Congress, Democrat Anthony Weiner observed that it always feels like Democrats "come into knife fights carrying library books".

The origin of this shift in tone - the first beat of the butterfly's wing that would become the Reagan Revolution - arguably happened during the 1980 congressional election in South Carolina, where I grew up and where this story is told all the time, even by Democrats, and not just because it's so rude. Lee Atwater, then working for the incumbent congressman, Floyd Spence, as well as for my cousin Strom Thurmond, was assigned the task of destroying the rising career of a Democrat who bore the Faulknerian name Tom Turnipseed. People who knew Turnipseed well were aware that he'd once undergone electroshock therapy, and Thomas Eagleton's sudden withdrawal from the 1972 Democratic ticket when his similar history became public was still in people's minds. Turnipseed accused Atwater of dirty tricks (push polling, specifically), but instead of responding to the charges, Atwater winked at reporters and joked that you can't always trust the accusations of a man who's been "hooked up to jumper cables". The reporters laughed, skipped reporting the facts, and a new politics was born.

And yet this is where the Republicans' love of Palin is perilous. Her ease before the cameras happens only when she has a line or two scripted for the character she's decided to play in public. At a recent "tea party" gathering, she leaned over the lectern and sneered, "How's that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?" It was a great bit, but a great written bit.

Here Palin most resembles Reagan, but cut her loose from her speechwriters and she shrivels into Dan Quayle. It would not be fair to make this case if she'd had only a few frozen moments with television interviewers. But without a tight script or notes scrawled on her palm, she quickly becomes confused. Her itinerant syntax is now legendary, what Bill Maher calls her gift for unspooling the "sentence to nowhere". You don't need to be an English teacher correcting an essay to know that the student did not read the assignment and is slipping into classic high school bullshit.

Ronald Reagan spent twenty-five years on the lecture circuit, honing his toastmaster's chops to such burnished perfection that any kid in the 1980s could imitate his amiable head tilts and the soothing susurrus that bathed his every line. Palin's rhetorical training ground - where she learned to say to Katie Couric that her favorite newspaper is "all of them, any of them", and to Glenn Beck that her favorite Founding Father is "all of them" - was the Q&A segment of the small-town beauty pageant. Off the cuff, she always sounds like she's standing at three-quarter profile in an ill-fitting evening gown, struggling to discourse on the judges' moronic request to name her favorite nation ("All of them!").

Astonishingly, she has continued to resist any media training since she steadfastly refused the help offered by the McCain campaign back in the fall of 2008. Instead, she bitterly brings up her most colossal failures like an adolescent trying to explain away an embarrassing mistake - and then can't stop talking about it, convincing no one but herself.

When Rahm Emanuel referred to liberal activists as "retarded" in a private conversation, she opportunistically pounced. Typically, conservatives stay away from the political-correctness angle. But Palin howled that she was deeply offended. Unfortunately, Rush Limbaugh shortly thereafter denounced the retards in the White House. Retard, retard, retard - he said it forty times, with the usual honking, farting, grandmother-horrifying derision that passes for humor on radio these days. The day after that, Palin defended Limbaugh, drawing a meandering distinction between Emanuel's comments and Limbaugh's "satire". The very next day, an actual satirist, Stephen Colbert, made the argument that "we should all come to her defense and say Sarah Palin is a fucking retard". For once, Palin shut up.


She pratfalls now as regularly as she pirouettes - and she stumbles whenever she veers from the play-book. Her resignation as governor of Alaska is a torturous piece of video; it's impossible not to feel near Aristotelian catharsis watching such a calamity unfold right in front of your eyes. But that hideously painful moment - Palin straining to spin her quitting into an act of resolution - was more than just a beauty-pageant moment. It's actually what Palin's audiences love about her. They never know what they will get. She can be the petty, mean girl who gets caught using her authority as governor to ruin her hated ex-brother-in-law or using a marker to black out "McCain" on an old campaign sun visor. She can be the deliberately trashy girl who in college favored sassy T-shirts (I MAY BE BROKE BUT I'M NOT FLAT BUSTED) and who as a vice-presidential candidate not only wore a pair of harlot-red pumps (sold under the name "Naughty Monkey Double Dare") but then gave them to her niece to sell on eBay for $2,025.

She seethes at the mention of her daughter's old boyfriend, Levi Johnston, cattily characterizing his Playgirl photo shoot as "aspiring porn". Her Facebook updates are as bitchy as those of any fourteen-year-old girl. And her treacly tweets are classic examples of what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls "deepities" - vagaries that can easily pass as profundities ("Kids: be more concerned w/ your character vs reputation bc character is what you are, reputation is merely what others think you are").

She can also do, by her own standard, some "porn". She showed off major leg in a racy spread in Runner's World, wearing a pair of tight, short shorts, with an American flag chucked on a chair like a sweat towel. In other pictures, she wears skintight leggings and assumes saucy "warm-up" positions. For her fans, it was an issue to keep in that special place where Mom never looks. When Newsweek ran the tight-shorts picture as a cover image, Palin swiftly denounced it as "sexist". But she recently showed up at John McCain's side in Arizona and thrilled her followers by wearing a black leather jacket, cut in butch style, with zippered accents defining her breasts. Palin knows her fan base, and she knows what they want: a brief tour of Google reveals dozens of Photo-shopped Palin fantasy images - and it's clear that they're not posted by her enemies.

A few days after appearing with McCain, she debuted her television show, Real American Stories (the title an apparent reference to her campaign declaration that her followers lived in the "real America"). Fox promised a show in which "three very different guests will speak to Palin", and what they got was another trademark Palin disaster. Two of her guests, LL Cool J (possibly chosen to chill the reputation of Palin's followers as mostly middle-aged and white) and Toby Keith, separately claimed that they hadn't spoken to Palin and that their interviews were re-purposed stuff from more than a year ago. The whole "real" show was mostly canned. It did modestly in Fox ratings but has not been regularly scheduled and will appear, network executives say, "periodically."


And so it goes. From time to time, new rumors about Palin's escapades in Alaska surface or a National Enquirer headline declares another one of her children a new "Boozy Wild Child" or a gossip rag alleges that Todd is reducing their marriage to a post on hotchickswithdouchebags.com. But then she'll give a great speech or go on Leno to pull off a decent performance. She seems to swing, like clockwork, from disaster to triumph. The comedian Kathy Griffin has called her the "gift that keeps on giving". And that is where both left- and right-wing politicos don't get Palin at all. The Democrats delight in her antics when she executes one of her routine face-plants, while a significant cohort of Republicans get all hot and bothered whenever she appears as the next great conservative savior. She's adept at always keeping her left antagonized and her right bedazzled. She lives in balanced suspension between two states of being, permanently listing forward, a kind of political optical illusion in which, depending on who's gawking, she appears always to be falling or soaring.

Setting aside her political apologists and detractors, and both are comparatively few, her mass-market base follows her because her triumphs and failures, her family, her bitchy tweets and trashy flaws keep her aloft in that mythic state Barbara Walters describes as "fascinating". She inhabits that dimension occupied by tabloid royalty. She's Northern Exposure meets Jersey Shore, with less cowbell and more moose. Sarah Palin has her own show all right, and it's not just on Fox. It's on every channel, across all platforms, all the time, and, for now, the world can hardly wait for the next episode.

_____

Jack Hitt is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of the forthcoming book Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character (Crown).


Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/

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