Politics & Policy

Palin the Piñata

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
If the Palin family is fair game, why does Joe Biden get a pass for the conduct of his son?

As should now be clear to all who follow my work, I do not like Sarah Palin. I never have. I didn’t like her when she was chosen as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, I didn’t like her when she became an ersatz television star and part-time political rabble-rouser, and I don’t like her now, in the waning days of her fame. Her speech to the National Rifle Association in 2013 was a rambling, self-parodic disaster, all sentiment and no substance; and her offering to the following year’s convention was somehow even worse — an indulgent, alienating piece of ostensibly impromptu performance art, composed of precisely the sort of us-vs.-them gang signals and unsubstantiated indignation that serve only to leave neutral observers with the impression that conservatism has nothing to offer them. Because I broadly agree with Palin on a good number of political questions, I imagine that she does not irritate me to quite the volcanic extent that she aggravates my friends on the left, but, either way, there are few people within the Right’s extended firmament that I would less like to send out onto a stage in my name and even fewer that I would hope to see within the corridors of policy and power. A day on which Sarah Palin is silent is, in my view, a good day for conservatism and a good day for America, and, we would, I’d venture, be better off if she disappeared from the national scene.

That notwithstanding, there is a material difference between one’s personal view of a person and the manner in which one wishes to see them treated, and I think we all have a responsibility to understand where that line is. All in all, I can think of few people in public life who have been as disgracefully hounded as has Palin; and nor, for that matter, can I recall a single figure in the past decade who has been subjected to self-serving double standards by the press and by elite culture writ large. It is six years since the woman ran for public office and more than five years since she enjoyed any real influence at all, and yet she is still held up by her many enemies as the standard bearer for all that ails the country. It really is no overstatement to say that, since she first came onto the scene in 2008, the self-appointed smart-set has treated Palin as a walking, talking source of confirmation bias — part totem for the much-despised people of “flyover country”; part boogeyman of a never-quite-appearing theocratic coup; part Barbiefied piñata, to whom none of the usual rules apply.

Here, progressive hypocrisy has been utterly breathtaking. Day in and day out, the more trigger-happy feminists within America’s media circus are moved to pen extravagant disquisitions on the nature of sexual inequality if and when a man they dislike so much as looks at them askew. Elsewhere, wholly substantive criticisms of Elizabeth Warren or Hillary Clinton are held up as shining examples of deeply embedded sexism within the United States, and of the subtle, sometimes invisible role that “hatred of women” plays within the country’s political culture. To take potshots at clownish figures such as Lena Dunham, we have learned, is to invite indignant death threats. And yet, when a veritable legion of male comedians elects to use foul, carnal, and, yes, “gendered” language to dismiss Palin and her family, our contemporary Boudiceas shrug at best and offer endorsements at worst. Sarah Palin, as the abominable bumper sticker has it, “isn’t a woman, she’s a Republican.”

Consider Andrew Sullivan’s reaction to the news that Palin’s family was recently involved in a brawl. This, per Palin’s daughter Bristol, is what happened:

“I walk back up. ‘Did you push my sister?’ And some guy gets up, pushes me down on the grass, drags me across the grass. ‘You slut, you f***ing c***, you f***ing this.’ I get back up, he pushes me down on the grass again. And I have my five year old, they took my $300 sunglasses, they took my f***ing shoes, and I’m just left here? A guy comes out of nowhere and pushes me on the ground, takes me by my feet, in my dress — in my thong dress, in front of everybody — ‘Come on you c***, get the f*** out of here, come on you slut, get the f*** out of here.’ I don’t know this guy.”

And this was Sullivan’s reaction:

At this point, of course, this is just an outtake from the old Jerry Springer show. And there really is nothing to add.

Except this: every time you see John McCain on television, remember that this is what he intended to bring within a heart beat of the presidency. This is the man’s judgment. As he lectures us about the need for more wars, and the Beltway media kowtows to his authority, remember that.

On the contrary. I would suggest that there is an awful lot “to add.” The first question we might ask of Sullivan and of anyone else who has taken an interest in this story is, Why are we spilling so much ink on this topic at all? Sarah Palin does not hold public office. She is not running for public office. Indeed, she does not even have a television show. Certainly, she is not anonymous — her relentless lust for attention is one of the things I dislike about her — but we might expect that her success in drawing notice would be commensurate with her position. She has no position. Why, then, the obsession?

The second, related, inquiry is this: If it is a sign of poor “judgment” to choose as veep someone whose children are a mess, why does Joe Biden get a pass for the conduct of his son, Hunter, who was kicked out of the Navy Reserve for having been discovered using cocaine? Take a wild guess as to which tale has been of more interest within the Beltway: That of Bristol Palin or that of Hunter Biden. (Hint: It ain’t the one involving the serving politician and his family.) Back when Bristol Palin was a minor, her pregnancy was treated as an indictment of the Republican party’s entire “family values” platform and as an example of the rank hypocrisy of the moral Right. Today, the man who is second in line to the presidency announces that his child has been discovered on the wrong side of a law the breaking of which often ends in imprisonment, and he is unlikely to face so much as an interview with the police. What, pray, does that say about the “bigger picture”?

The third question, as The Week’s Matt Lewis observes, is this: “If Bristol Palin was physically and verbally assaulted by a man, shouldn’t we be up in arms about that, and not about her reaction”? This lattermost wringer is all the more poignant in light of the current focus on domestic violence and sexual assault, and our tendency to regard each and every incident in which a man uses his superior strength for ill as evidence of a broader “war on women” or a “culture of rape.” Who among us can say with a straight face that, if Malia Obama had been attacked at a party or at a concert or at her school, the headlines would have focused on her reaction to the onslaught? Likewise, if Chelsea Clinton had been pushed to the floor, dragged across the grass, and robbed, would we really be breaking down the language she used in the aftermath? It couldn’t be, could it, that Palin’s unfashionable social views, her abrasive character, and the general dislike for those who admire her, have led the political and journalistic classes to side, cackling, with the mob?

Such questions, at this point, are unfailingly clichéd. But, as a critic of Palin’s I will ask them once more in the vain and weary hope that my perspective will make a difference. The measure of a fair man is that he treats those whom he loathes as fairly as he treats those whom he loves. If Sarah Palin is our guide, there are few fair men left.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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