Sarah Palin’s post-gubernatorial career has been shaped, and misshaped, by a media strategy heavy on knee-jerk combativeness, with a not insignificant dose of victim’s complex thrown in. Her ceaseless campaign against the perceived distortions of the mainstream media routinely crosses from defensiveness into confrontation, and even paranoia. Her recent defenses of Rand Paul and Nikki Haley — two conservatives facing starkly different political challenges — were remarkably similar boilerplate condemnations of “gotcha politics” and “media corruption” that managed to reduce the pair’s trials to her own persecution.
Palin’s prickliness has received a good deal of media attention, which makes sense. The gossip media’s laser-sighted focus on her every move — not to mention its fixation on the details of her personal life, from Andrew Sullivan’s obstetrical obsession to Joe McGinniss’s stalker journalism — is inherently creepy and frequently unfair, and it warrants a firm response. Palin’s conservative following, from Facebook to Fox News, is constitutionally disposed to suspicion of the politico-journalistic complex, and helps beat the drum from her side. Likewise, when the press gets hit by a force whose social-media reach alone exceeds most newspaper circulations, it tends to take notice.
But what hasn’t been sufficiently noted is that Palin is increasingly cutting her vinegar with honey, showcasing a self-awareness, a light-heartedness, and an ability to poke fun at herself that could potentially turn into some of her most powerful weapons.
Palin’s sense of humor was already on display when she cracked during her 2008 Republican National Convention speech that the only difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom is “lipstick.” But when then-candidate Obama responded by implying (unintentionally or otherwise) that Palin’s addition to the GOP ticket more closely resembled “putting lipstick on a pig,” the porcine-for-canine substitution prompted sober head-shaking and condemnation from the McCain camp. Hitched to that joyless campaign, Palin had few chances to indulge her funny side. After her infamous interview with Katie Couric, Palin quipped that she was merely trying to keep Tina Fey employed, but even her ratings-winning appearance on Saturday Night Live, during which she gave as good as she got from lefties Fey and Alec Baldwin, was called “sexist” and “disrespectful” by McCain spokeswoman Carly Fiorina.
Contrast that with Palin’s response to her first “gaffe” as a solo artist, in which she scribbled words like “energy,” “tax cuts,” and “lift American spirits” on the palm of her hand before her keynote at the Tea Party Convention. CNN called it a “cheat sheet,” as if Palin were taking the SATs and not delivering a speech from prepared remarks. Keith Olbermann had a field day, saying the incident demonstrated Palin’s utter lack of substance and core beliefs, as if scrawling four majestically broad concepts would suffice in the stead of a coherent philosophy of government. But rather than launch a reflexive counterattack, Palin responded with self-deprecation, referring to her crib notes as a “redneck Teleprompter,” and scrawling “Hi Mom” on the offending palm during her next public appearance, thereby taking ownership of the incident and revealing it for the minor distraction it was.
Similarly, when the since-deposed late-night king Conan O’Brien created an Internet sensation by having William Shatner recite lines from Palin’s book Going Rogue as spoken-word poetry — Captain Kirk diction, bongo accompaniment and all — Palin didn’t get mad, she got even. She could have ignored the meme (her fan demographic overlaps very little with O’Brien’s), but she instead elected to appear herself on the show — and read lines from Shatner’s autobiography.
She’s even doing combinations now. At a recent endorsement rally in Colorado, Palin favorably noted an audience member’s sign that read “I Can See November From My House,” a reference to the unfortunate McCain-campaign talking point that the proximity of Russia to Alaska helped establish Palin’s bona fides on foreign policy. Palin called the slogan “palm-worthy.”
As Palin matures into a force in the conservative movement, she would do well to show America more of this side of her. She must learn that not taking oneself too seriously does not make one unserious (unless, of course, you’re Michael Steele). In the process, she can gain something that both the lazy media caricatures of her and her incessant counterattacks lack: a third dimension.
– Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.