A Politically Charged Lightning Rod

Understanding the oversize reaction to Sarah Palin


Sarah from Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar, by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, PublicAffairs, 301 pages, $26.95

The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star, by Matthew Continetti, Sentinel, 226 pages, $25.95

No recent political figure has ignited the fury of the chattering classes like former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Shortly after she injected signs of life into the zombified McCain campaign with a rousing speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, the little-known figure was dissed by Salon's Cintra Wilson as a "power-mad, backwater beauty-pageant casualty" whose conservative ideology made the liberal, feminist writer "feel as horrified as a ghetto Jew watching the rise of National Socialism."

Martin Peretz, the editor in chief of the New Republic, sniffed that the candidate "was pretty like a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy's" and that it was "good to see that the Palin family didn't torture poor Bristol [unmarried, pregnant and 17 at the time], at least in the open."

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, a self-identified conservative who calls his Daily Dish "the most popular one-man political blog site in the world," persistently claimed that Trig Palin, the governor's then-4-month-old baby with Down syndrome, was not Sarah's biological child and requested the full release of her obstetrical records, stopping just short of demanding he be sent the placenta for genetic testing. (If President Obama is hounded by a small group of reality-challenged "birthers," who doubt he was born in Hawaii, Palin is certainly the only politician to have given rise to what might be called "after-birthers," who doubt that she delivered her own children.)

Even Palin's defenders had issues with modulation and mental balance. Watching last year's vice presidential debate, National Review's Rich Lowry squealed that Palin's smile "sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America."

Two new books—hitting stores just weeks before Palin's own Going Rogue memoir will come out to record-setting advance orders—attempt to explain why the hockey mom from Wasilla, Alaska, drives both detractors and fans alike to something approaching insanity. Each is serious, well researched, and well written, but neither quite fully explains the oversize reaction to Palin.

As its title implies, The Persecution of Sarah Palin, written by Weekly Standard staffer Matthew Continetti and publishing Nov. 12, is flatly sympathetic to Palin, whom he paints as the victim of a conspiracy as vast and punishing as the Alaskan landscape. "When they weren't mangling facts," he writes, "the press did their best to undermine Palin's accomplishments."

The core of her immense appeal to jes' plain folks, he says, is also the core of upper-crust contempt for her: "The American meritocratic elite places a high priority on verbal felicity and the attitudes, practices, and jargon that one picks up during graduate seminars in nonprofit management, government accounting, and the semiotics of Percy Shelley's 'To a Skylark.' " Palin, he notes, "speaks in a different patois."

This is more than a little plausible. Indeed, I can remember college-professor friends of mine confessing that, in addition to Palin's pro-life bona fides, it was ultimately her accent, University of Idaho BA, and flute performance in the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant that made them "horrified" by her.

If Continetti helps to explain the unbelievable vitriol of many on the left, he fails to grapple with a more moderate but more widespread sense that Palin was simply not up to the task of being vice president. Certainly, high-profile conservatives such as David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, and Kathleen Parker ended up as Palin critics not because she was populist or anti-abortion but because she came across as manifestly unqualified for the position of vice president. If her résumé (small-town mayor, short-term governor of a low-population state) was thin upon nomination, her performance in key moments was often cringe-inducing. "Palin's recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate," wrote Parker in 2008. "Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League."

Indeed, even Continetti acknowledges that Palin flubbed the Couric interview, which was packed with such softball questions as "what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this [job]" and what Supreme Court cases did she find particularly important?

Given the compressed public schedule of the campaign because of the last-minute nature of the pick, Palin needed to score high every time she appeared. She didn't do that, in part, for reasons explained by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe in Sarah From Alaska. Conroy and Walshe covered the Palin campaign for CBS News and Fox News Channel, respectively. "Palin is neither an unblemished victim of fiendish, unpatriotic forces nor a preposterous dolt worthy only of a smirk," they write. She is "outwardly confident but frequently shows signs of profound insecurity" and is "hypersensitive to criticism and naysayers." That confidence and hypersensitivity often got in the way of the preparation that might have helped her survive what is surely the very toughest gantlet in politics, a long-shot presidential campaign conducted in the midst of two unpopular wars and an economic panic.

Palin's penchant to shade the truth, even on trivial matters, is also far from endearing. One of her biggest applause lines on the stump was that she had said "Thanks, but no thanks" to federal money for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" at Gravina Island. In fact, she supported the project until it became controversial and, after it was killed, she refused to return the federal funds and constructed what Conroy and Walshe call a "Road to Nowhere" that leads to where the bridge would have been.

As both books underscore, despite (or maybe because of) the intense animosity she has called forth from opponents, Palin will be a key player in attempts to re-brand the GOP as something other than the loser party in 2010, 2012, and beyond. Her surprising resignation as governor of Alaska bespeaks an impulsiveness that would undercut the sort of discipline and strategy for a long-haul role. But her ability to draw massive crowds (and fundraising dollars) and to start a national conversation via Facebook and the Wall Street Journal about "death panels" in health-care reform legislation suggests she has a strong grip on many Americans' anxieties and hopes. If Richard Nixon could come back from a famously non-mediagenic presidential run, a humiliating gubernatorial defeat, and the most god-awful retirement speech in history, there's no reason that Sarah Palin can't. Or at least won't try.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.