Sarah Palin, Maverick at Last

Mama Grizzly becomes the first real politician of the Internet era.


When Sarah Palin aborted her gubernatorial career in its final trimester, pundits and political insiders reacted with shock, bafflement, scorn, and dismay. "Resigning strikes me as very strange," National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg offered with charitable restraint. "Caribou Barbie is one nutty puppy," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd echoed, holding the charity. "I wouldn't call this a strategy," Republican campaign strategist John Weaver told Time magazine. "This makes no sense."

To anyone who pays more attention to Ben Bernanke than Ben Affleck, walking away from a prime gig like Palin's was virtually incomprehensible, signaling either imminent scandal or incipient dementia. To the rest of America, Palin's move made perfect sense, firmly cementing her status as perhaps the one politician who truly feels our ennui. First she cheerfully admitted that she had no idea what the vice president actually does all day. ( Just like me!) Then she stared blankly when asked to reveal her thoughts on the Bush Doctrine. (The what?) Then, after earning even higher Nielsen ratings in her first big prime-time showcase than the American Idol finale, only to return to Alaska and the dull reality of mulling over potential appointees to the Board of Barbers and Hair Dressers, she bailed. Sorry, politics, she's just not that into you. 

But that doesn't mean Palin has abandoned her plans to boldly progress America. "I've never believed that I, nor anyone else, needs a title to…make a difference…to help people," she exclaimed in the first of her widely mocked resignation speeches. Fed up with the petty bureaucratic niceties of finishing her term, fed up with partisanship, Palin was leaving to fight for her country, manage her PAC for fruitful abundance,and help anyone else who was proud to be a God-given American, regardless of party affiliation or favorite Supreme Court ruling. For a moment, it almost seemed as if she was on the verge of breaking out a pair of star-spangled tights and assuming the role of national superhero, going wherever she was needed most, doing whatever needed to be done, in order to ensure that truth, justice, and petroleum-based energy independence prevail in this great, drillable land of ours.

Palin's posturing may have seemed laughable to Beltway insiders, but have you looked at congressional approval ratings lately? In March they hit a four-year high…of 39 percent. Then they promptly started dropping again. Meanwhile, just check Hollywood's box office receipts for the last decade to see how many Americans would love to be represented by Captain Barracuda.

It's not as if we'd demand a particularly competent caped crusader either. As traditional institutions are vanquished all around us, those doing the vanquishing rarely possess the takecharge flair of Batman or Superman. They're amateurs. Bumblers. When Matt Drudge first started filing missives on the Internet, no newspaper in the land would have hired him. He could barely string two words together without committing some Abu Ghraib–caliber grammatical atrocity, but he saw where news was headed earlier than every Pulitzer winner on the planet, creating a website millions of people find extremely useful. Paris Hilton can't act her way out of a YouTube clip, but she recognized that it's no longer necessary, and often counterproductive, for Hollywood stars to spend all day memorizing mediocre sitcom dialogue when they can be doing the things the public finds truly compelling, like attending nightclub openings, making sex tapes, and getting arrested.

For all the ways the Internet supposedly has revolutionized politics, consider its most dramatic achievement in this area to date: It helped a Harvard-educated senator, carefully cultivated and backed by one of the two brands of American political expression that have ruled the country forever, win the presidency.

Compare that to the extreme makeovers the Web has perpetrated on retailing, the news media, or the music industry. Because technologists have yet to figure out how to break government monopolies on levying taxes and making laws, the nation's elected officials face a much rosier future than the nation's reporters and rhythm guitarists. But that doesn't mean the millions of people who have been dancing on the spasming bodies of newspapers and record companies for the last 10 years wouldn't love to do the same to the country's most autocratic and self-serving institution. Whatever sins the music industry might have committed, buying a CD is still a wholly voluntary act. Whatever biases your most hated nightly news anchor might harbor, he isn't taking 25 percent of your paycheck.

Times, in short, have never been better for would-be leaders interested in achieving political goals without holding office. Palin has always positioned herself as a Drudge-like figure—an unorthodox interloper, devoid of the proper pedigree and old-boy connections, but nonetheless ready to shake things up. Until now, however, this pose was about as convincing as a veggie burger. The self-proclaimed hockey mom who supposedly entered the world of politics via the PTA was a career politician who'd won her first election at the age of 28, when her eldest son was just 3. The self-proclaimed antidote to entrenched career politicians had spent 13 of the last 16 years as an elected official and the other three as a director of a nonprofit organization whose function was raising money to elect Republican women in Alaska.

That so many people found such obvious facts so easy to overlook shows just how great a demand there is for the kind of magical populist Palin claimed to be. On July 3, she took a giant leap toward making her actions match her rhetoric. She really is a maverick now, exploring territory few of her fellow politicians are likely to follow. "The problem that Sarah Palin has with her resignation is the credibility that she can do more as a nongovernor than as a governor," exclaimed former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis on Fox News. "That simply makes no sense."

If you're familiar with the impact nonjournalists like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark have had on journalism, or the impact non-music-industry CEO Shawn "Napster" Fanning had on the music industry, Palin's contention might not seem so baffling after all. We live in an age of disruptive upstarts who forsake inefficient legacy institutions for more promising paths. As vice president, Al Gore managed to help pass exactly zero major laws regarding climate change. As a non-veep, he was honored by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee as "the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted" to combat global warming. If a wooden patrician like Gore can achieve such fruitful productivity by becoming a private-sector man of the people, imagine the potential accomplishments of a Wasilla beauty queen with a 10-megaton wink. 

More than any other politician of her stature, Palin embodies the Internet's insurgent, user-oriented spirit. Her resignation announcement—poorly timed, awkwardly staged, emphatically meandering—was a pitch-perfect masterpiece of YouTube verité. Her constant stream of Twitter tweets mixes potshots at Obama with snapshots of her kids. She may have once aspired to be an old-fashioned sportscaster, but now she has the soul of a blogger.

How Palin will ultimately capitalize on her populist appeal is a matter of great speculation, but one thing is clear: Whether she plans to run for president or star in a documentary about the pressing need to save the oil industry, Palin's abrupt departure was a stroke of genius, the most sensible move she could have made. Spending 18 more months governing a state with fewer residents than Columbus, Ohio, was the political equivalent of releasing a straight-to-DVD movie. Now she can devote her full attention to all the things that enthrall her fans: cherishing her freedoms at rallies and photo ops, hunting media elites from airplanes, defending God's energy plan from wasteful Washington meddlers, and maybe even competing in the next season of Dancing With the Stars. Jonah Goldberg and Maureen Dowd may not get it, but surely Paris Hilton understands.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.