It was probably not the intention of liberal investigative journalists to expose Sarah Palin as a figure far more sympathetic than her public image. Twenty-four thousand pages of e-mail voyeurism reveal a politician who has successfully hidden her virtues behind closed blinds.
As Alaska governor, Palin was kind to her staff, responsive to her constituents and protective of her state. She sought God’s guidance in difficult decisions, made time for her family and found media questions on the provenance of her youngest child to be “flippin’ unbelievable.” These revelations read more like a campaign commercial.
Even Palin’s vices are unremarkable in a politician. She was ambitious — which defines the breed. She feuded with state politicians — which other governors have been known to do. She paid too much attention to her press coverage — again, hardly unique. From what I’ve seen, the e-mails contain just one damning indictment of Palin’s judgment: She accepted public relations advice from Newt Gingrich.
Reading through some of the messages brought to mind the rising governor I met in Alaska in June 2007. Palin was a reformer who had opposed the corrupt Republican establishment of her state. She governed from the center-right. Her style was more practical than ideological. Over lunch at the governor’s mansion in Juneau, Palin was engaging, informal and earnest. The contemporaneous e-mails show that she was careful to avoid excessive partisanship — even willing, on occasion, to praise Barack Obama.
Four years later, it is difficult to find this Palin in her public utterances. Her suspicion of the media has become antipathy. Her style is often abrasive and self-pitying. She encourages an odd sort of conservative class resentment, attacking George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush as “blue bloods.” Her hyperpartisanship can be embarrassing. Michelle Obama’s concern about child obesity, in her view, violates our “God-given rights to make our own decisions” — a Jeffersonian defense of Twinkies in high-school vending machines.
How did a likable, consensus-oriented governor become such a divisive figure? This is a different and deeper scandal, in which many are implicated.
At the beginning, Palin was given plenty of reasons for grievance. After her selection as John McCain’s running mate, some in the press focused unkind attention on her family and faith. From a human perspective, her defensive reaction was understandable. In a memorable convention speech, Palin returned a volley of fist-shaking populism. On the campaign trail, huge Republican crowds — far larger than McCain generally drew — rewarded Palin’s feistiness. It was the heartland (including the tundra) against the coasts; real Americans against the elites. Following the election, a procession of radio and cable appearances further simplified and purified Palin’s persona. Positive reinforcement had done its predictable work. The candidate became a caricature. The caricature became a celebrity.
This transformation would be easier for the media to criticize if they did not frequently fall for the same temptation. Audiences for blogs, radio talk shows and cable television tend to reward ringing reassertions of their own certainties. It is not just politicians who build followings with predictable, partisan arguments, vividly expressed. Simplicity is salable. Doubt and complexity are not. Extreme statements attract attention. Soon they predominate. Eventually they define. A pose becomes a brand. A mask becomes a face.
For evidence, it is necessary to go no further than Palin’s most persistent critics in the media. It is one thing to disagree with Palin’s approach and policy views. It is another to pursue an Ahab-like obsession across endless oceans of e-mails. And it is another thing to aim a harpoon at her family, which is indeed flippin’ unbelievable.
Modern politics has become a vast Pavlovian experiment. New technologies and media outlets provide immediate positive and negative reinforcement. The blogs buzz, the ratings come in, the hits are counted. A public official who reads the press too closely finds a following in attacking it. Elements of the press find an audience in criticizing her relentlessly. Reflexes become conditioned. People salivate on cue.
In Palin vs. the press, neither side has acquitted itself particularly well. Palin became a less sympathetic figure than she once was. The media managed to undermine a low reputation. Their codependence exposes our political culture to ridicule. But it makes for good television.