Mark Joseph is a longtime cultural and political observer, author of Faith, God and Rock & Roll: How People of Faith Are Transforming American Popular Music and other books. In his latest, Wild Card: The Promise and Peril of Sarah Palin, Joseph explains why he calls Palin a “wild card” in an interview with National Review Online.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Does the world really need another Sarah Palin book?
Mark Joseph: I don’t know, but I wrote the first draft of this book shortly after her selection and all of the books except for one came afterward. My then-agent, to his shock, was unable to sell it back then because publishers were convinced that Obama was going to win and it was too close to the election. So it gave me the opportunity to wait and get a full picture of who she was, where she’d been, and where she was going.
Lopez: Is there any new thing that could be said about her?
Joseph: A lot. I do a number of things in the book. In addition to the biographical aspects, I go in depth to try to understand why McCain picked her, and explain the media frenzy that ensued. I also spend quite a bit of time on her religious faith and the larger questions that it raises about the uneasy relationship between Christian conservatives and the GOP — which was basically an arranged marriage put together by Ronald Reagan and which has been living on his fumes ever since. I also find it significant that this is the closest that a person from the Pentecostal tradition has come to the White House.
Lopez: What makes her a wild card?
Joseph: My distributor and I had settled on the title “Wild Card” and just a few days later she quit as governor of Alaska so we felt like it was an affirmation of the title. She’s a wild card because you never quite know what she’s going to do next and she enjoys confounding her friends and enemies.
Lopez: Is Roger Ailes guilty of some kind of malpractice if he knows she’s considering becoming a candidate for president?
Joseph: I have no inside knowledge, but he’s a very smart guy and my guess is they have an understanding that she’s not going to run . . . this time.
Lopez: Why so much interest in her, from both Fox and MSNBC?
Joseph: For so many reasons. First, she’s a beautiful woman and she’s incredibly telegenic. But she also has what I call the forbidden boyfriend syndrome. I’ve talked to a number of her fans, particular older people, and they seem to take distinct pleasure out of supporting her because they see how much the establishment hates her and the more the establishment calls her stupid the more they enjoy the thrill of supporting her. They will overlook her shortcomings because they enjoy hearing Chris Matthews and even Karl Rove squeal.
Lopez: Why did McCain pick her? Did that blow it for him?
Joseph: He was incredibly irresponsible throughout the whole process. I mean, you’d think a guy running for president would have thought this thing through more, but he hadn’t. And the little thinking he did do led him to think it would be a good idea to select the other party’s former vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Lieberman, as his running mate. I don’t think McCain did Palin any favors by plucking her from the tree before she was ready. Had she served one full term as governor and then run for the Senate, I think the Palin story would look much different and she’d be much better prepared for the presidency, having had a chance to govern both in Alaska and in Washington.
Lopez: You write: “If American males were sometimes threatened by powerful women, Palin’s masterful presentation of her husband likely assuaged any such fears.” Was that a real concern? And if she was a “masterful” media strategist here, why not elsewhere?
Joseph: Absolutely. Older men adore Palin because she wields her power in a way that doesn’t threaten their masculinity, and I think they take their cues from Todd Palin. He is a unique American phenomenon in that he’s not the Denis Thatcher type, but a rugged man’s man, and yet he’s so confident in his masculinity that he’s not at all threatened by her. Men pick up on that. I don’t think that men in general fear leadership by women, they just dislike a certain kind of leadership that threatens their masculinity. So as I read through her speeches it became clear to me that she always went out of her way to affirm his masculinity whether describing some race he had won or his hard work in the oil industry or his various other manly exploits. It’s a very smart move on her part. It may not be a strategy at all — it may just be the way they’ve organized their relationship — that she leads in certain areas but also affirms him in his areas of strength and doesn’t challenge his overall masculinity. It’s actually a fascinating relationship that I don’t pretend to understand. But somebody should write about it because it may be the relationship of the future, as more women pursue higher education and men don’t.
Lopez: What does Sarah Palin tell us about feminism?
Joseph: That feminism wasn’t invented in 1969 but has been around for thousands of years in the form of strong women who have led men at various times — Deborah the judge from the Bible, Joan of Arc, Carrie Nation, Margaret Thatcher, and of course the Biblical ideal of the woman of Proverbs 31, who runs businesses and manages her husband’s estate while he hangs out at the city gate with the boys.
Lopez: How important is understanding Alaska to understanding Palin?
Joseph: Very important. She is a product of her environment. Her political instincts are wild and untamed. She’s a fighter, who eats what she can kill. I don’t think her loyalty is to people but to ideas. If people violate her ideals and philosophy they become expendable. She learned all of this from nature and the environment she grew up in.
Lopez: What kind of governor was she?
Joseph: She seemed to govern with a strong hand. She was surprisingly moderate on some issues — she didn’t ram through socially conservative policies, but was willing to compromise. And of course she was more than willing to tax oil companies at higher rates then before. She wasn’t loyal to her party or to people necessarily, but to her beliefs. She turned on mentors if they offended her sense of right and wrong.
Lopez: Many consider her a quitter, though. By the time she returned, was that impossible to avoid?
Joseph: I think quitting was a grave mistake. No matter which explanation you went with, it still looked bad. Reagan understood that leadership is often acting — that is, projecting strength. The message that came out of the resignation was that if you make her life miserable enough, she’ll quit. That is not the message one wants to send to opponents. I think she was ill-advised or perhaps she wasn’t advised. Her history is that she sees more interesting things along the path and heads toward them. She had a chance to become a national figure and it made governing Alaska look boring.
Lopez: Should she have said no to McCain, in retrospect?
Joseph: Yes. She should have turned him down and let the world know that she did because John McCain is everything she detests in a politician. She’d have been a hero to the conservative movement. That would have given her time to grow and mature as a politician and as a person. I’m not a fan of microwaved candidates whether of the Right or the Left. Leadership is learned over time, after one has held many positions of power and influence. The notion that people can go from serving parts of first terms as governor or senator to running the world, in this modern, complicated age, is a bit nuts. Reagan benefitted from running the Screen Actor’s Guild and then a huge state for eight years. If they were surgeons and I needed an operation, I would want someone with considerable experience.
Lopez: Why do you spend a whole chapter on Palin and religious faith?
Joseph: Because religion is the ghost in almost every story and holds the key to understanding people, especially politicians. Nixon rejected absolutes in college, which led directly to Watergate, while Carter’s naive form of Christianity caused him to misunderstand human nature and led him to make severe miscalculations on the world stage. In Palin’s case her Pentecostal background is a key to understanding her, and people above my pay grade should look into that and find the significance of what it means that somebody from that wing of Christianity may be in power. I don’t think she’s dangerous or anything like that. Pentecostals are not snake-handlers. But I think understanding Pentecostalism will be a key to understanding Sarah Palin. I delve into her religious upbringing, the preachers who influenced her, and the significance of faith in her life.
Lopez: You’re a cultural observer. What do you make of Bristol Palin, now a cultural figure?
Joseph: I have no idea. I just hope she turns out well and makes a good life for herself and her child away from the spotlight.
Lopez: Why would you ever compare a candidate to a war tactic — “shock & awe,” in one of your chapters?
Joseph: That was the only way I knew how to describe the reaction to her — particularly among Democrats and the Obama campaign. There was the first shock of her pick, which on paper was brilliant. And then there was the awe that many Americans felt when she gave her first speech at the GOP convention. It was masterful. I remember watching it on Tivo at one in the morning that night and it completely blew me away. But she just wasn’t ready to give those kinds of performances consistently, and the gaps in her knowledge became obvious. But I don’t fault her for this. She wasn’t ready. And that’s John McCain’s fault.
Lopez: You make movies. Are you annoyed Steve Bannon beat you to a Palin movie?
Joseph: Not at all. The idea never occurred to me and documentaries aren’t really my area — I’ve only produced one, so I wouldn’t be the right person for it anyway. I knew Steve was meeting with her, though he never told me he was working on this. But I have seen Generation Zero, which just blew me away. I thought his thesis was just fascinating — the notion that mothers in the Fifties had grown up in the Depression and WWII and so they wanted life to be perfect for little Johnny, coddled him — so he became a hippie and today runs Wall Street. I mean I’d never connected those dots before. He’s the Michael Moore of the Right, and I watch both of their movies with great interest.
Lopez: What is the most surprising thing you learned about Sarah Palin while writing the book?
Joseph: That she fired the Alaska Board of Agriculture in order to gain control of the creamery board since she couldn’t otherwise directly influence the board, which had threatened to close down. And that she opposed her own mother-in-law when she ran for office because she didn’t agree with her political philosophy. I have a mother-in-law. That takes some gumption.
Lopez: So will she run for president or not?
Joseph: Yes. But not in 2012.
Lopez: If you were advising her, what would you recommend?
Joseph: She has time on her side. In Reagan years, it’s still 1957 for her. She should step out of the spotlight, and spend time reading the great works of her movement — Rusher, Buckley, Chambers, Friedman, Hayek, Johnson, Solzhenitsyn, Sowell, etc. — and grapple with how to apply those principles to the Internet age. She should host a syndicated daytime TV talk show that mixes politics and pop culture and earn the trust of the American people over the next decade. That would allow her to overcome the awkwardness and syntax issues that seem to plague her from time to time. If she did that, she could become a powerful force, a sort of hybrid of Oprah and Reagan.