Sarah Palin: Serious Politician, GOP Muse, or Celeb?

I’ve never understood Sarah Palin, but I enjoy trying to. Why? Because 58 million people voted for the ticket she was on in last year’s election, more than a third of this country has a favorable opinion of her, and, most importantly, she has over 1 million supporters on Facebook.

This week, I set out to discover if Ms. Palin is as good as she claims. Would my impression of her change if I saw something other than unfairly edited interviews where she was asked “gotcha” questions? My history with her is limited to her media persona, a caricature to be sure, but does it have any grounding in reality?

It was perfect timing, as Ms. Palin reclaimed the limelight this week with the release of her memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, all 432 pages of which were written in just four months. In case you’re wondering, yes, she had help in the form of ghostwriter Lynn Vincent. (Full disclosure: I have no intention of reading Ms. Palin’s memoirs, after an acutely painful experience with Hillary Clinton’s Living History, I no longer read memoirs by sitting politicians. Books by politicians who are still planning on running for office are intended to offend no one and rewrite history when necessary. The latter task is most certain Ms. Palin’s aim.) What I would and did do, however, was watch the entirety of her appearances on “Oprah” and her interview with Barbara Walters on “Good Morning America” early this week.

I began watching her appearances, expecting to be incapable of overcoming my instinctual, negative reaction to a woman who came far too close to the White House. I wanted to hear what she had to say about the campaign, how much self-reflection she has done and what she plans to do in the future. But I found myself drawn in by a woman who does come across as a great mother and genuinely believes she knows this country is moving in the wrong direction.

But it didn’t last long, because that is exactly where Ms. Palin’s problems begin. She has no problems pointing to mistakes that President Obama is making. Heard about death panels this summer? Those came straight from a Facebook note she posted. She is a successful rabble-rouser for the GOP, but little else. She is a one-woman party of no, and perhaps once she is done promoting her book we will hear more from her, but not if she has her way.

Ms. Palin, it seems, has only discovered what is convenient for her since she resigned so unexpectedly in early July. When Oprah asked her why, she cited the “opposition researchers up there in Alaska that were sent, probably, by the Obama camp.” It seems she has discovered that “you don’t need a title to make a difference” and is happy to be out of office. But these remarks bring to mind her speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, when she placed the ultimate title-less position in her crosshairs, saying, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” Which one is it, Ms. Palin? Do you not need a title to make a difference? Or do you just not need a title to be invited to GOP functions and go on TV?

At this point, I think the former governor of Alaska has three choices. She can try and become a serious politician, the face of the Republican Party, or a celebrity.

If Palin is going to be a serious politician, she needs to overcome her fear of the media in this country and learn how to make people take her seriously. An uphill task for sure, but a serious study of one or two issues and the ability to talk somewhat coherently about the rest could slowly remake her into a serious candidate for political office. If her current media appearances are indicative of her intentions for the future, she has ruled this option out. On Rush Limbaugh’s radio show this Tuesday, Ms. Palin was asked if she believes “in the modern-day go-green movement of solar and wind.” Her response: “I think there’s a lot of snake-oil science involved in that, and somebody’s making a whole lot of money off people’s fears.” Clearly, the months since her resignation have not been spent coming up with more coherent, fact-based answers to policy questions.

If Palin plans to lead the GOP into 2010 and beyond, she cannot continue energizing the Republican base full-time. The head of the Republican National Committee, by my definition, wants the Republican party to be a majority party, and Palin’s unbending partisanship is precisely the wrong tool for the job. But if the GOP is going to kick out all the RINOs (Repulicans In Name Only) and force all moderate republicans into hiding, she might be the perfect woman for the position. I’m sure President Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party would have no problem with that.

But if Palin plans to remain a celebrity, and that is all she will remain if she continues trying to be all three of these at once, she can continue on her current course. She can continue to bring her children with her to the Republican National Convention and all of her television appearances this week (they were even interviewed by Barbara Walters) and then cry foul when people in the media talk about them too. When Oprah asks her about Levi Johnston, the father of her grandson, she is free to say that national television isn’t the place to talk about personal issues but to follow that by calling him “Ricky Hollywood” and calling his upcoming spread for Playgirl “aspiring porn.” Because celebrities aren’t supposed to be reasonable. A celebrity expects adoration from the media, not tough questions and the real reporting that follows. Only a celebrity expects an interview with Katie Couric “to be kind of light-hearted, fun working mom speaking with working mom and the challenges that we have with teenage daughters.” A candidate in a national campaign does not have “light-hearted” chats with anchors of network news shows.

But, Ms. Palin, our time together is over now. And although I will no longer extend to you any excessive effort of understanding, I do know what all your children look like, and a little bit more about what you believe. You are, truly, a genuine woman who honestly believes you deserve to occupy the White House and lead this country into the future. But that only makes you genuinely crazy and certainly not deserving of my vote.

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