Watching the Sarah Palin Show and Wondering Why
This past Saturday I found myself immobilized on my den sofa, eyes riveted to the TV, all the way from lunchtime to dinner and beyond. Why? Men from the Geek Squad had just installed my new big-screen TV (actually an appropriately moderate 37″) the day before, and I was eager to enjoy the wide sweep of the electronic imagery on a chilly winter afternoon.
But what kind of electronic imagery held me spellbound all those hours? Why would I forgo the invigorating enticements of winter for the artificial enticements of the home screen?
TLC (formerly The Learning Channel, until learning proved to be unmarketable) was running an all-day marathon of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the only reality show to feature the day-to-day antics of a bona fide American idol. The program promised to mingle Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Northern Exposure — with a dollop of Fox News for good measure.
I had never caught the show until now, so I prepared to immerse myself in the original Mama Grizzly’s home environment — at least for an hour or two. If nothing else, the rugged Alaskan scenery would make a grand impression on the new wide-screen TV.
Then a strange thing happened: the show sucked me in like a Hoover WindTunnel vacuum cleaner, and I was powerless to escape. Yes, the scenery proved to be mesmerizing on the big screen, but so was the star of the show. I couldn’t take my eyes off Sarah Palin.
Granted, Ms. Palin is a comely and well-constructed woman. But her appeal isn’t sexual so much as magnetic: she attracts and repels with equal force. Generally she attracts conservatives and repels liberals, but as a moderate I found myself both attracted and repelled, sometimes simultaneously. It was a fascinating experience.
There was the former vice-presidential candidate, governor, and mayor of Wasilla — the folksy Alaskan WonderWoman with her prom hair and spectacles — panning for gold, whitewater rafting, felling a gargantuan tree, mushing a team of huskies, clobbering a giant halibut over the head, taking target practice, shooting a caribou, watching a herd of wild musk oxen (and not shooting at them), climbing Mt. McKinley (though apparently not to the top), working on a fish processing assembly line, visiting her parents in a house chock-a-block with hunting trophies, grumbling about her nosy journalist neighbor, fishing for wild Alaskan salmon and dragging her kids from one rousing adventure to the next, sometimes against their will.
In between adventures she’d hold forth on the value of hard work, competition, the great outdoors, marriage, family, and the building of character in one’s offspring. You could begin to understand her unforgiving and defiantly polarizing politics — along with her antipathy to the effete bicoastal American culture — as an extension of this innocent homespun philosophy.
Most entertaining and enlightening of all was a camping expedition into grizzly country with another nervy, high-octane reality star, Kate Gosselin, and her famous brood. It was like watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man brought to you by L. L. Bean.
Palin, gung-ho and full of moxie (Teddy Roosevelt would have loved this woman for her sheer outdoorsy exuberance, if not necessarily her politics), braved a bone-chilling drizzle to treat Kate’s kids to a genuine North Country experience before the cameras. The kids seemed to enjoy it.
Kate didn’t. She spent the better part of the episode shivering under the makeshift canopy despite her “19 layers” of clothing: far from the action, alienated and petulant, muttering out loud about the sheer insanity of attempting to enjoy the cold and rain. She bailed out midway through the adventure and took her kids with her.
Palin was left to wonder why. In a moment of naked introspection, she surmised that Ms. Gosselin was simply out of her element, the way she herself might feel lost at a big-city cocktail party. It was a generous-spirited assessment, though we can’t know what she really thought of her companion’s disappearing act. I wasn’t sure what to think of Palin: here was a force of nature, a walking, talking Energizer Bunny whose vitality struck me as both engaging and relentless.
Part of the fascination of Sarah’s show was imagining the gap between the televised image and the more plausible reality. Is Palin always this tirelessly cheerful, upbeat, good-natured and unpretentious? Is she a true evangelical for the strenuous life, or does she slip away into bourgeois comfort while the camera’s not looking? Would she take the time to entertain my kid on a camping expedition if it weren’t being televised?
A trusted cyberspace friend directed me to an article in Vanity Fair that attempted to tear away Palin’s carefully crafted facade. According to the author, our Divine Sarah has made numerous enemies in her hometown, doesn’t normally wield a gun or a fishing rod except in front of a camera, throws bloodcurdling hissy fits with her husband and staff, and won’t appear on TV — even in the Alaskan wilderness — without a meticulous make-up job.
The consensus, drawn from interviews with intimates and acquaintances, is that Palin used to be the genuine article until she found herself in the national spotlight; now she’s all smoke and mirrors.
It’s easy to see why so many downtrodden Middle American conservatives adore Sarah Palin: they see her as an attractive, dynamic, inspirational embodiment of vanishing American virtues — not to mention a woman who can show those whining pro-choice feminists a thing or two about real American womanhood. I can understand the appeal of that image — even if it’s studiously embellished for replay on our home screens.
America has undergone a social and cultural revolution during the past half century: we’re less white, less certain, less religious as a nation. Our small towns are dying, and small-town values are dying with them. Our middle class is crumbling and our popular culture grows more degenerate by the decade.
For all these alienated, increasingly uncertain old-guard Americans, Palin offers certainty wrapped in a pretty package. No need to torture themselves with reflection and self-doubt. Palin confirms their beliefs with multiple exclamation marks. She helps them feel superior to the urban snobs who feel superior to them. She can take down her ideological opponents with a shrug and a jab in her twangy Middle American accent. “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ for ya?” was pure native genius.
This is precisely what scares the bejesus out of Palin’s liberal opposition. The woman is a loose cannon: ignorant, uncultured, unschooled in the ways of the metropolis — yet exasperatingly shrewd and even gifted. She can be as smug as her critics and undeservedly self-assured, like so many unenlightened souls blessed with preternatural energy and robust health. But she can pack a punch like nobody else on the political scene today, and she doesn’t play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules.
The left wanted to destroy her before she turned into an Eva Peron or, God forbid, a girly Hitler. Conservative populists are dangerous enough, after all; a popular conservative populist is a positive menace. She had to be taken out. Her notorious knowledge gaps and gaffes made front-page news; her made-for-tabloid family’s every burp and sneeze became fodder for liberal mockery.
When Palin first exploded onto the national scene at the 2008 Republican national convention, she was effervescent, dynamic, funny and refreshingly unaffected for a politician. My impression was that she’d make a first-rate sitcom star. She had the look, the gusto, the wacky charm: another Goldie Hawn in our midst, but a Goldie Hawn who came ready to fight.
Palin has had her Elvis Year — three of them, in fact. But in the wake of the Tucson massacre and the ensuing controversy over her infamous cross-hairs map, her influence might already have begun to wane. At this point less than twenty percent of Americans say they would vote for her in the next presidential election.
Did Sarah Palin belong on the national political stage? Perhaps not, but she took us on a wild and entertaining ride. Even if she didn’t make her followers think, she made me think about the virtues and foibles of passionate populism.
I had to conclude that Sarah Palin’s Alaska was the perfect outlet for her talents: a showcase for a rugged, rough-and-ready traditional lifestyle based on self-reliance, spunk and an affinity for weapons. I can do without the guns, but I have to confess that her show made for compulsive viewing. Even if massive chunks of it were staged and scripted, I couldn’t stop watching until I finally nodded off well into the evening.
On that level, and that level alone, Sarah Palin wins my vote.