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Watching the Sarah Palin Show and Wondering Why

January 25, 2011

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.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy Martin permalink
    January 25, 2011 8:01 am

    Very interesting view. I admit that I’ve accidentally come across her show & watched it for a bit. Her constant cheerfulness grates on my nerves. Does anyone really enjoy being outside in freezing rain? What for? A picnic? I’m still not sure what that trip was all about. I hate to admit it, but I would have felt exactly like Kate G. did. I don’t like the enjoyment she seems to get when killing an animal. Maybe it would be a good thing if she continued with this show & stayed out of politics altogether.

    • January 26, 2011 1:51 pm

      I have to admit, with just a touch of guilt, that I got a chuckle out of Kate’s misery in the great outdoors. She’s been leading a pretty charmed life. Sarah P. was really in her element on a show like this; I can see her as an upbeat cheerleader for the rugged, self-reliant life… as long as she stays away from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

      As for the gun thing, I have to believe that hunters, on some level, don’t really think they’re taking the life of a creature that can feel emotions or use reasoning (in fact, we know they do) — as far as the hunters are concerned, they’re just shooting a furry robot. Though I confess to eating the occasional cow, chicken or pig, I could never take pleasure in causing another creature’s death. I haven’t even gone fishing since I was a teenager.

  2. Priscilla permalink
    January 25, 2011 8:10 am

    Outstanding commentary on a fascinating person, Rick…glad to see that you are not a victim of PDR (Palin Derangement Syndrome). You totally nail Palin’s visceral appeal – I can recall when McCain introduced her as his veep pick, and then again when she spoke at the GOP convention, and how she almost literally filled the room with electricity. She is as you say, a force of nature. And the over-the-top, vitriolic hate and personal that have been leveled against her and her family since almost day one, have done nothing more than to energize her supporters, in a way that I can only describe as the “regular kids” fighting back against the “mean girls and bullies” in high school.

    What I think liberal Democrats fail to notice (or willfully ignore) is the fact that much of Palin’s fan base is just that – a FAN base, made up of people who admire her spunk and resilience, but who have no intention of voting for her, at least not for national office, at any point. She is tremendously influential largely because of her opposition, not in spite of it. This is something that her GOP enemies (and there are MANY ) recognize, tempering their criticism with healthy doses of respect for her personal magnetism and her “Plain Palin speak.”

    At the end of the day, I think that the left has created Sarah Palin as the force that she is, by behaving with insufferable smugness and superiority towards anyone who believes in traditional American values ( I count myself among them, at least for the most part) – not all of us are ignorant yahoos, ya know?

    • January 26, 2011 2:18 pm

      Thanks, Priscilla — and you raise a good point about Palin’s support growing in direct proportion to the attacks on her by the elite left. I was astonished by the meanness of those attacks, too — taking aim at everything from her spotty education down to the names she gave her kids (which I actually think are kind of refreshing; I certainly don’t hear the same guffaws at the absurd monickers that fashionable lefty celebrities slap on their kids).

      Part of the left’s vitriol had to be a response to the potential game-changing power of Palin’s superstar charisma. As you said, she lit up the Republican convention like nobody else. Combine that with her grassroots popularity and her uncompromising right-wing politics, and you can see why the left jumped all over her — they needed to squelch her career before she could rocket to the presidency.

      Palin can dish it out, too — her voice has an edge that gives her sarcasms an extra twist of the knife. And then there’s this angle, which I probably should have mentioned in my column: she’s the most potent female personality in American politics — and yet she stands in complete opposition to the orthodox feminist verities. I can imagine the leftist feminists moaning “But she’s not OUR kind of liberated woman!”

      I have to wonder if the ferocity of the opposition has soured Palin’s personality. She still seems perky and upbeat, and she’s probably one of the most resilient personalities on the political stage, but you could tell throughout the episodes of her show that the personal attacks are getting her goat (and who can blame her?). She’ll survive, though.

  3. valdobiade permalink
    January 25, 2011 1:47 pm

    Rick, I am still confused of what Palin wants. Are these TV programs (entertaining or not) a new kind of electoral campaign?
    I know that California had chosen Schwarzenegger as governor only because the guy made macho movies. However, under his watch, California went near bankruptcy.
    Is Paling going the same way: “star” on TV then elected for her “charm”?
    I know I won’t vote for Palin, but sometime I have this morbid curiosity to know where the hell US will go with such a President. Bush the Young went over the edge in a free fall, but with Palin we may hear “SPLAT!”
    (Ohhh, these beautiful horror movies!)

    • January 26, 2011 2:26 pm

      Valdo: Leave it to a Romanian to connect Sarah Palin with horror movies. 😉 Americans tend to like personality in their politicians; it’s a good thing that George Washington never had to appear on TV.

      As for what Palin ultimately wants, who knows? I think she enjoys being a celebrity, getting huge speaking fees and TV contracts — and being able to cast a spell over her admirers without having to endure the drudgery of paperwork and policy meetings.

      Her Alaska TV series probably showed her at her best… what will she do for an encore?

      • valdobiade permalink
        January 26, 2011 2:33 pm

        Rick wrote: Her Alaska TV series probably showed her at her best… what will she do for an encore?
        Quits election campaign before it ends?

  4. January 25, 2011 1:55 pm

    Finally something on this blog that is actually moderate. Palin is not my ideal anything. But you seem to have been intelligent enough to grasp that neither the persona she projects nor that the media paint her with are true. Worth considering about other leaders too.
    I would note that you can take the entire critical monologue you have starting with “that is precisely what scares the bejesus”, substitute Reagan for Palin and it still pretty much works, alternately you can invert the gender, flip rural and urban, left and right and you have a pretty good description of Pres. Obama.
    It is also worth understanding that just as Palin does not grasp the problems of urban liberal elites, those metropolitan progressives have no grasp of the problems of much of the rest of the country. Palin is wrong from trying to impose some of her values onto others, just as progressives are wrong in trying to force the rest of this nation to conform to theirs. We live in the most diverse country in the world. That diversity is an asset not a liability. It also means that sweeping government solutions are nearly always wrong.
    I suspect you will find Palin’s knowledge gaps are not nearly as great as you might believe, and are more likely to represent grasping that she could not say what she wanted, and had no paletable alternative ready. Rand Paul got into all kinds of trouble speaking his mind about the civil rights act.

    • January 28, 2011 12:26 am

      Dave: Good point about the elites not being able to comprehend the problems of Middle Americans, and vice versa. We really don’t have a common culture in the U.S. these days, and I think that’s an ominous sign.

      You could say the same about the Gilded Age, when the top of the pecking order looked to Britain and France for cultural cues. But virtually everyone was a believing Christian and a patriotic American. This open cultural warfare between the urban elite and everyone else seems to be something new. No wonder it’s becoming next to impossible to achieve anything resembling consensus on political matters.

      Obviously neither the left nor the right should be entitled to impose radical solutions on the rest of the country; that’s why it’s so important for our leadership to spring from the center. (Even Obama knows this.) Moderates will suggest moderate solutions, which seems obvious — but this can mean taking fairly radical corrective action when we’ve been bending too far to the right or left on individual issues. This is what most people don’t understand about moderates; they assume all moderate proposals will be meek and mild.

  5. sicklygreyfoot permalink
    January 25, 2011 6:48 pm

    First off:

    Of course Mr. Bayan can defend himself, so perhaps this isn’t necessary, but the opening “Finally something on this blog that is actually moderate” statement from Dave Lynch is erroneous and uncalled for. Mr Bayan has already posted numerous times that he is a social conservative and a fiscal liberal. Anyone who hasn’t gleaned this has not read the blog, or been veiled from these facts by their own ideology. So please, fellow readers, if we’re to lob grenades of criticism, let’s do it accurately.


    Priscilla’s assessment is dead on — “At the end of the day, I think that the left has created Sarah Palin as the force that she is…” In the same way that the left has taken Glenn Beck FAR too seriously, Palin subsists in the limelight for the most part on unreasonable left wing vitriol. The more the opposition (mostly undeservedly) hates her, the more her base loves her. (Whether this is out of spite or not, I don’t know.) But I’ve never had a real problem with her. Never has a political position been issued from her lips with venom, viciousness, OR even spite. She is who she is, she thinks what she thinks, and she isn’t afraid to say it. I can disagree with many of her positions (but not THAT many) and still respect her. And the apparent code of self-conduct she governs herself with makes for a much coveted opponent, indeed.

    Would that more of her ideological colleagues—and opposition—followed suit.

    • January 28, 2011 12:51 am

      greyfoot: Thanks for the defense; I don’t think Dave will ever go for my economic views, not because I’m such a fiscal lefty, but because I think our economy has bent too far to the right (i.e., stacked in favor of the big operators) and I’d like to bend it back to the center.

      What exactly is the center, economically speaking? I’d say it’s a system that rewards individual initiative and talent while ensuring that the less fortunate don’t wither away from neglect. Right now, to me at least, the game seems rigged in favor of those who already possess. It reminds me of the biblical verse, “To him that hath, more shall be given.” We need to distribute our society’s rewards more fairly: not equally, just equitably.

      What I’m saying (I think) is that I’m actually a moderate on most issues, but my opposition to the prevailing conservative-driven economy and left-driven culture make me seem like an economic liberal and cultural conservative.

      • Kent Garshwiler permalink
        January 30, 2011 3:41 pm

        Rick, You say you are Social Conservative and Economic Liberal. I am Economic Conservative and Social Liberal.

        I don’t understand your views economically as you stated:
        “It reminds me of the biblical verse, “To him that hath, more shall be given.” We need to distribute our society’s rewards more fairly: not equally, just equitably

        The bible verse pertains to the sower and the reaper and the way they both decide how to live their lifes. One uses their seed (wisely) the other doesn’t.

        This can be changed to represent one who uses their money to save to make more money and one who spends unwise continuously.

        It is obvious that the one who saves wisely sows rewards more given than first started. The other loses their money because of bad choices and suffers continuously because the person fails to open up their eyes to see where they went wrong with their money. Follow the verses following the statements you made and you will find this out.

        you stated:
        We need to distribute our society’s rewards more fairly: not equally, just equitably

        Fairly is defined as moderately/or in other words without favoritism.
        Equally is defined as evenly
        Equitably is defined as evenhandedly and fairly
        Evenhandedly is defined as open-minded, fairly, without bias

        You disqualify Equally and that’s good because it’s Marxist to equal everybody’s money.

        But how can you say “Fairly and Equitably” when you advocate taking away from the rich by more taxation without favoritism for the poor/middle? How can you say it is without bias?

        If you show more taxes on the rich only. You show bias/favoritism and disqualify Fair and Equitable. This gears still toward Marxism.

        If you show no taxes you are back to the same result we are in today. Rich being rich and poor being poor.

        Our situation of being an American is to suffer and gain rewards all at the same time regardless of monetary status. It is the decisions we make as individuals that give us the ability to be the good sower.

        Like I said before.
        We need to inspire the rich to give more not for us to take via taxation. The whole tax system punishes for high achievers. Remember, it’s a Progressive Tax Code. What Bill Gates is doing is what needs to be done. Charity/giving ….Not taxing more. The rich will hoard their money if you force it from them. More outsourcing to banks in other parts of the world.

        The bigger issue is if you spend all the money that rich people give. How many more times will the government be asking for another “hand out” via “force”?

        Every ten years a Progressive is saying that the rich isn’t paying their “fair share”. Let me ask you and everyone this….What is the final “fair share”? The kind where we stop asking for more handouts from the rich? Or instead of “handouts’…let’s try “bailouts”.

        Is it when there are no rich people? Sounds like Progressive/Marxist… Communist stuff to me.

        Also, you have to view rich/poor as what is it that the rich are doing versus the poor. The rich save more, the poor spend more than what they bring in… it is essentially a mental puzzle that can only be solved by inspiration and determination via the individual. The rich do what the rich do to stay rich and the poor do what the poor do to stay poor.

        I am telling you we have to think bigger and inspire people who have excess things to contribute not by force, but by building a better community as a whole and inspire people who have little to find a place to save and work to create a better community as a whole. This is a up and down coming together. This is a right and left political coming together. This is what makes Centrist the best position.

        My rant for today.

  6. Diana George permalink
    January 25, 2011 8:01 pm

    I read a good portion of this out loud to the Politically Different One in my house, and we shared a good laugh. You might consider this a tribute to fine writing. Or, perhaps, scientific proof of true moderacy.

    • January 28, 2011 12:59 am

      Diana: Good to know that my writing can actually be read out loud, and glad you enjoyed sharing my Palin ponderings with your husband. She’s a lot of fun to write about.

  7. Kent Garshwiler permalink
    January 30, 2011 2:34 pm


    As years have gone by I think of Palin as a masculine female. She enables women to think that they can overcome the “I can’t do this because I am a girl” schtick. Women love to be just like guys and dream they can overcome (triumph) challenges in general life and celebrate equally. Whether it be emotional, or physical. Palin just brings out the ability that all women can be just as tough, rugged, and determined to stand up to challenges. She is inspirational for acting and being this way. It comes natural for her.

    Although, she’s inspirational. She’s not Presidential material. She has a teen-like, squeaky voice when she gets excited and yes that might get a guy excited or turn both sexes off, but it might not appeal to world leaders. Her masculine side might not appeal to Arab leaders or tough leaders in other parts of the world, unless they like a challenge to see just how “tough” she is.

    Excluding her baggage….kids issues…which would be more fodder in the elections. She has to think like a winner and not a messenger.

    She’s good doing what she does now. Getting people inspired in their own way. She’s better being a messenger and staying more of a Government reform activist.

  8. February 2, 2011 11:05 pm

    Excellent article on Mrs. Palin. I think that promoting Alaska is a great role for her and it’s good to see her in that context rather than a national one. While following the Egyptian crisis on the news and thinking of all the high level communication going on behind the scenes, I couldn’t help but think of what the US position would be if she was in Obama’s shoes. Sarah’s got a great story. Let’s hope that her political career has peaked.

  9. November 18, 2012 11:07 am

    Baloney. I used to commute from Southwark to St Albans every day, which ctenrruly costs about a35 each way. Commuting 20 miles in most US cities will cost you 4 bucks in gas and at least 4 bucks wear and tear (IRS tables)I’ve lived in the US and the UK. Petrol costs more in the UK, but TRAVELLING costs less. While not all the UK has the same transit service as London, almost all of it has some. I lived in a US metropolitan area of more than 1 million people, but the nearest bus service was more than 8 miles away and only ran express routes to the center of the city. The nearest supermarket, movie theater, fast food, was 5 miles away and unreachable without a car. The nearest medical facility (doc-in-a-box) was also 5 miles away. The nearest theaters, concerts, sport venues, library, hospitals and museums were 10 to 20 miles away, and only accessible by car. There are parts where you can’t even walk or bike just 10 to 20 miles because motor and waterways create another 5 mile detour.The rails still aren’t perfect in the UK, but you actually have them. You can get from almost any point A to any point B at least within a few miles. Sometimes the schedules stinks, but you can do it. The only way to get from most MAJOR cities in the US is by plane or by car (and you need a car to get to the plane). Memphis to Little Rock is about 130 miles, or about the same as London to Lincoln. If you take the train, it’s 700 miles, takes 28 1/2 hours, including a switch to a bus, and you arrive at 3 AM. You can skip the bus and stay on the train for 1,200 miles through Chicago, eliminating a 14 hour layover in St Louis. The fare is $260. Driving will cost about $70, using IRS tables. The fare on East Midlands to Lincioln? 50 bucks.Even excluding the extra cost of time, travel in the UK is just plainly CHEAPER. Petrol costs a lot more, but that’s like saying eating costs a lot more in the US because biscuits in the UK cost about half what they do here (and we don’t even get Hob Nobs!)

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