‘She reminds me of my wife.”
That was my most frequently received e-mail the September night that Sarah Palin spoke to a riveted Republican National Convention in 2008, as the vice-presidential nominee spoke of hockey moms, pit bulls, lipstick, the dignity of human life, and the future of our nation.
I suspect every man who e-mailed wasn’t revealing his secret fantasy — his wife wearing stilettos as she tries to save the world from a Barack Obama presidency. He finally saw, in primetime politics, impossible for the media to ignore, a woman in politics who more closely resembled his family’s values. After decades of women in politics reading from a Ms. magazine script, here was a woman on a presidential ticket who didn’t seem to feel the need to suppress her femininity or perversely use it to advance a most un-motherly agenda.
It was liberating.
In this way, she rallied that night both the Right and the Left. And she’s still driving emotion and headlines. She’s a media and fundraising gift — again, both for the Right and the Left.
And in case you missed it: Apparently, Democratic voters would vote for Charlie Sheen for president over her by 44 to 22 percent. Independents, too, by 41 to 36 percent. That Public Policy Polling even thought to poll such a thing tells you something about the bizarre political and cultural climate around her.
Some of the more colorful attacks on her — most recently she was compared to Al Sharpton — have been known to bring high-profile commentators to her defense, even while others express their concern.
The political sideshow makes for a chattering-class TV producer’s dream.
But putting her name alongside Charlie Sheen and Al Sharpton? It’s all a little bizarre — even for a media in constant need of being fed. There are justified criticisms, but the widespread reactions to the mere name and image of Sarah Palin continue to know no bounds.
“The people who say such things don’t know her, have never spent time with her, and are responding to a caricature of what they think she is,” Rebecca Mansour, who works at Palin’s political-action committee, says. “Do you remember Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s famous quote about anti-Catholicism?” she asks me. “He said there are only a few people who hate what Catholicism really is, but there are millions who hate what they think it is. If these critics would spend a few hours reading her words, listening to her speeches, and studying her actual record of accomplishments, there is no way they could say such things about her and still claim to be intellectually honest.”
There is something to that Sheen quote. Nothing from Charlie this time, but the late bishop, a revered preacher who hosted one of the first primetime television shows; someone who understood human communications. It’s why all those men e-mailed me on Governor Palin’s first big night on the national stage. It’s why she drives the Left wild and is a source of fundraising and programming for nothing less than the Democratic National Committee. She’s at the convergence of politics and culture. Her mere presence — that of her and her family — brings some of our most contentious issues to the fore. They are our most contentious because they’re the most personal. They are at the heart of who we are as individuals and a culture.
I thought of the unceasing reactions to Palin as I sat with two generations of anti-feminists at a book launch last week. Phyllis Schlafly, that brave lone warrior against the Equal Rights Amendment, and her niece, Suzanne Venker, have a book out called The Flipside of Feminism. Schlafly is an unapologetic fan of Palin — much more so than Venker — because she sees this. She knows this. She’s lived it. Having been called the worst of names simply because she was the most empowered of them all; refusing to surrender what’s only natural to an ideology that, masked as freedom, waged war on the complementary nature of the sexes.
You don’t have to want Sarah Palin to be president to acknowledge that the frenzy around her may have more to do with us than her.
On multiple fronts, the former governor of Alaska is actually much more complicated than most of the debates about her ever indicate. She’s that pro-life mom, a poster gal whom the Susan B. Anthony List was waiting for. But she’s also been known to get her inner Gloria Steinem on — which is ironic given that Steinem’s among those who would excommunicate her from the global sisterhood if she could. She’s very much the product of her times in this way — very much of the moment in this way. Born and raised in a culture where girls were educated as if they were an oppressed class in need of empowerment, often at the expense of boys, she’s representative of a culture that is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that the sexual revolution messed with some very fundamental things. Our opinions about politics sometimes merely reflect our inner struggles and longings in the messiest of ways, providing endless fodder for a ravenous media.
I do think that when all is said and done in 2012, the candidate who finds his name on the top of the Republican ticket is going to be someone who doesn’t evoke the passions of a wounded culture in quite the same way. But I also think to deny that Sarah Palin, flaws and all, already holds a positive place in our history is akin to believing that Charlie Sheen is actually “winning.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.