Cedar Springs, Michigan
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
I think I've figured out the whole Sarah Palin thing. So far it has pained me to even think about Sarah Palin, so I've dismissed any such thoughts. But the media, in particular the AOL home page, has kept her photo out front on an almost daily basis, and today there was a bit about her daughter's plans to marry.
I know I'm not the only one who's thought along these lines, but I often have to convince myself that I've arrived at conclusions all by myself in order to feel that they're valid. Only later do I discover that it's all been written up, more comprehensively and eloquently, in an article in The New Yorker.
Politicians and would-be politicians have long been creatures of the media, going back on this side of the ocean to the very beginning of the nation. George Washington's image was in large part the creation of his media handlers; Parson Weems's biography created the myth of the cherry tree, among others. In the election of 1800 the newspapers backing Adams and Jefferson furiously slung mud, hoping some of it would stick. Adams was accused of being aristocratic and anti-democratic largely because of the definitely undemocratic Alien and Sedition Acts passed during his term; Jefferson was accurately accused of having fathered children by one his slaves and of being an atheist (maybe, maybe not, but definitely not a Christian). And on it went, up to the present day. Senators and Congressmen get caught in men's rooms. Governors say they're going hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Presidents sit at their desks.
The thing about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be almost completely a creature of the age of the "reality" television show. Other pols get their share of coverage, but it's mostly stump stuff--where did they speak, what did they say. But it was clear from the start, when she was nominated for the vice presidency last summer, that Palin's role was to be largely symbolic--that she would represent the banality of ordinary people--former cheerleaders who talk with whiny twangs and don't have IQs much above average (c'mon guys, let's get goin'); folks who have to put up with getting divorced and with their kids getting knocked up and with their own unexpected pregnancies and with tattoos, piercings, dope, embarrassments on facebook and all the rest. The problem in 2008 was that there was already too much banality at the top end of the Republican ticket. We don't want the guy who gets shot down and captured and held prisoner to be our president. We want the guy who shoots other people down and captures them. In comic book terms, we might elect Gladstone Gander or Uncle Scrooge, but never Donald Duck.
The Republicans have always had more of a knack for propaganda than the Democrats have, no doubt about it. For a long time they were like Avis, trying harder, because they were number two. When it comes to telling lies and repeating them over and over for strategic purposes, they're the masters, and have been since the days of Reagan, at least. Democrats are too diffuse and unorganized to be much good at the Big Lie. They don't so much want to govern as they want to include, which makes them nicer human beings, to be sure, but less effective as rulers and far less ruthless. As for the GOP, when your party essentially peddles hatred, religious bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and finger-pointing, it's counter-productive to greet the public with open arms. At this point I'm reminded of that great line from the movie The Usual Suspects, taken in turn from Baudelaire: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." The greatest trick the Republicans ever pulled was convincing average Americans that the interests of unfettered capitalism are entirely compatible with the welfare of the working class. That no taxes or responsibility or consequences for the rich somehow equals utopia for all. On the face of it an absurd idea, one against which common sense would seem to militate, but one with an amazingly large number of adherents. Anything the government does, however tepidly, to try to help the least among us gets labeled socialism and dismissed out of hand--as if anyone in this country has any but the most muddled notion of what socialism is. The idea of government-funded medical care for everyone, for example, is derided as impossible to achieve and unacceptably leftist, unless, of course you happen to be 65 or over, in which case it's just good old American Medicare. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, no Republican ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Which brings us neatly back to Sarah Palin and the age of reality TV. Reality television is the fairly logical outgrowth of the Oprah/Jerry Springer/Judge Judy genre, where everyday yahoos and freaks parade their pathetic shortcomings and lack of circumspection for all to see. The idea is that when we watch such folks we relate to their situations but feel at least a little superior, and therefore not quite so hapless ourselves. "Man, I may be fat, but she's really fat." "He has no idea what a pompous ass he's being." "If she only knew what a ridiculous slut she looks like in that outfit." After years of putting these losers on talk shows and in front of actor-judges, the television people got a brilliant idea: why not build entire shows around groups of unselfconscious nimrods competing with one another in some elaborate game on a desert island, or for a husband or a wife. Then, after that idea had been wrung for all it was worth, the TV people said, "Let's see if they can dance, or sing. Let's do the Gong Show, but play it straight."
Out of all this emerged, quite seamlessly, yet another idea. I can almost hear it being pitched, in Hollywood or Washington DC, those entertainment capitals of the two coasts. Let's take a dull tool with lots of camera appeal and political aspirations, set her up as the front for a manufactured political movement, and follow her for the entire four-year presidential term, culminating in her triumphal march into the Republican convention in 2012. Work her family into it, even in ways she might not approve of. Keep her connected to the audience at a human level. Let them feel her pain. Like Kate from Jon and Kate, or Vienna from The Bachelor, or the fuckups from Celebrity Rehab. It'll be like Legally Blonde meets Triumph of the Will! (At this point the Hollywood and Washington types scratch their heads. "Triumph of the whaaaa?" The pitchmen quickly regroup. "Okay, okay. Imagine Julia Roberts starring in a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)
The deepest secret fear of some, of course, is that Sarah Palin might actually get nominated, or worse yet, elected. In Europe they're used to this sort of thing, having a centuries-old tradition of being ruled by simpletons and preening megalomaniacs. In general, the American electorate prefers presidents whom they perceive to be smarter than they are, and more blessed by fortune in various other ways. Good looks go a long way, true, even coupled with mental mediocrity. Look at Warren Harding. Or Gerald Ford. But there's a fine line between mediocrity and downright idiocy which the voters don't generally cross. Still, it would be interesting. And not really all that scary. The republic would survive. In fact, if she's nominated, whether she's elected or not it might turn out to be the greatest gift the Democrats have had dropped in their laps since Watergate. The question is, can they handle it?