How television created and then killed Sarah Palin’s political prospects
By John Doyle
Last I heard about Sarah Palin was contained in a story with the headline, “Sarah Palin tours India and Israel to get to grips with foreign policy.”
It was tempting to see this headline in itself as illuminating, if not incisive. Who else would undertake a crash course in foreign-policy issues by starting with countries that, in turn, start with the letter “I”? You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see some significance. And the joke writes itself.
Before that, the top item in Sarah Palin news was a spat between Palin and comedienne Kathy Griffin. As soon as it was announced that Griffin would play a Palin-like character on an episode of Glee, Palin was on the attack. On Fox News, live from Alaska – with water and trees in the background, naturally – she called Griffin a “50-year-old bully” and attacked her for mocking the former governor’s daughters.
It was familiar Palin – smiling, finger-pointing, imprecise, and attacking a professional comedienne for making fun of people. And yet it was all so lame. The Palin bite had gone. The Palin buzz has gone. Sarah Palin is over, so over.
How over? A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that her approval ratings among committed Republicans in the U.S. had faded dramatically since previously measured last October. In fact, her “strongly unfavourable” rating has skyrocketed among Republicans. In recent political commentary in the U.S., the talk is of her presidential bid “imploding.”
It was television that destroyed Sarah Palin, just as it made her. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – the arrival of Palin as a major political figure in 2008 was an emanation of the reality-TV culture, anchored in the belief that ordinary or “everyday” people, inarticulate though they may be, and with all the baggage of messy personal lives, are truly compelling public figures. Palin was the political equivalent. A figure who refracts national identity as it is shaped by the culture’s most powerful medium. Authentic, populist and dismissive of sophistication in thought and action.
Then, television duly destroyed the Palin authenticity. The arc of her national political career began with a defining speech at the Republican National Convention in September, 2008, and ended in November, 2010, a few episodes into Sarah Palin’s Alaska. The show, a cringingly inevitable reality-TV series, gave her a huge platform and she blew it. If her exposure on TV in 2008 brought out the authenticity, the show brought out Palin’s inner princess. She talked about being a mom 87 times an episode (I’m exaggerating , but only a little) and made dubious attempts to make political parables linking her family, the outdoors and wildlife. It was ego unbounded. And this after quitting her job as governor of Alaska.
The series had many memorable moments and scenes, but what lingered – and obviously had an impact on Republicans – was the unsubtle undermining of Palin’s assertion that she and her family are “normal, average Americans.” A salmon-fishing trip for the kids involved using a private bush plane to fly to a remote wilderness lake. Palin asserted that such a trip is “an everyday thing” in Alaska, yet any fool watching at home knew the cost had to be in the many thousands. A mountain-climbing trip to Mount McKinley was presented as a trip in the family RV, yet viewers were gobsmacked to find that the vehicle was more like those giant, luxury tour buses used by rock bands.
Television is not kind to blatant hubris and hypocrisy and the series amounted to an epic failure to enhance Palin’s status as the genuine voice of authentic America. Television is flow, not content, and in politics, TV is not a problem to be managed but an instrument to be played. (Marshall McLuhan told us so and it is true.) The flow of Sarah Palin’s Alaska amounted to a river of platitudes and patently insincere assertions. Palin failed to play television as an instrument.
The medium that gave her exposure and heft as a figure representing everyday reality, and ordinary people’s views, finally diminished her fatally. After succumbing to the temptations of a reality-TV series, Palin was exposed as overexposed. The other week, while on Fox News attacking Kathy Griffin, she had all the political heft of some batty lady calling into the phone-in radio show from remote Alaska and braying about things that made sense only in her own head. The presence, the charisma were gone.
Palin arrived as a creature of TV and the medium has eaten her up. Never mind the primaries and U.S. presidential election in 2012. The political obituary can be written now.