Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on Palin's Abrupt Exit

Sarah Palin announced yesterday that she'll step down as Alaska governor this month.
Sarah Palin announced yesterday that she'll step down as Alaska governor this month. (By Robert Deberry -- Mat-su Valley Frontiersman Via Associated Press)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

She survived Katie Couric and Tina Fey, searing scrutiny, rumors about her baby, anonymous taunts of "whack job" from those who once touted her credentials to be a heartbeat away.

Yesterday Sarah Palin completed a remarkable media flameout that made her one of the most famous women in the world, the exotic Alaska caribou hunter, one of the most revered and reviled politicians in modern history. The governor announced she is calling it quits, just eight months after she and John McCain went down to defeat.

She has nursed a grudge against mainstream journalists, accusing them of peddling "gossip and lies" about her family, and at her Wasilla home Palin wouldn't give the press corps the satisfaction of a clear reason for leaving in the middle of her first term and refused to take questions. "Your enemies won't believe you anyway," she said during a rambling discourse that touched on her baby, her prayers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, her visit to Kosovo and her life as a high-school point guard.

Perhaps it was fitting that Palin bailed days after a hard-edged Vanity Fair piece in which former McCain campaign strategists questioned her mental state and even wondered whether she was suffering from postpartum depression. Still, the red-suited Republican was upbeat yesterday alongside her snowmobiler husband and kids, a contrast to the grim-faced Mark Sanford and John Ensign, who in recent weeks have begged forgiveness for their sexual transgressions.

Is there something more to Palin's stunning decision? A reality show or Fox punditry perch in the offing? It's too early to tell, but it's likely that Palin simply got tired of the ritual media humiliations, along with the mundane reality of governing. It was only three weeks ago that she called David Letterman "pathetic" for telling an insensitive joke about her daughter getting "knocked up" by New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez.

The Palin soap opera became so embedded in the popular culture that it spawned its own set of subplots: her daughter Bristol's pregnancy, Bristol's breakup with boyfriend Levi Johnston, their dueling morning-show appearances, and the governor turning on the young man she once said would marry her daughter, accusing him of "flat-out lies, gross exaggeration and even distortion of their relationship." And there was Palin firing the state public safety commissioner, who had resisted pressure to dismiss a trooper who happened to be embroiled in a bitter divorce and custody battle with the governor's sister.

It is easy to forget what a fresh and charismatic figure she seemed at September's Republican convention. It is more difficult to forget the media overkill as some journalists flirted with sexism, questioning how she could juggle the vice presidency and five kids, including an infant with Down syndrome.

But the McCain brain trust shielded her from the press, and by the time she was refusing to tell Couric a single newspaper or magazine she read, and could not name a single Supreme Court ruling other than Roe v. Wade, Palin became a punch line, even when she showed she could laugh at herself on "Saturday Night Live."

Conservative commentators spotted her early, some on scouting trips to Juneau, and one attribute kept popping up. Rush Limbaugh called Palin "a babe." National Review's Stephen Spruiell called her "ridiculously good-looking." Before long, CNBC's Donny Deutsch was saying: "Women want to be her. Men want to mate with her."

But Palin's candidacy also sparked a civil war on the right as some opinionators called her out of her depth. When syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker ripped Palin as unqualified, Parker was showered with 11,000 negative e-mails, calling her a "traitor" and an "idiot."

After retreating to Alaska, Palin remained an object of media fascination. Her on-again, off-again agreement to address a recent Republican fundraising dinner in Washington fueled a week's worth of hot-air debates. She seemed at once pugnacious and put-upon.

Even by the standards of American insta-fame, Palin's roller-coaster ride was breathtaking. Plucked from obscurity by McCain, she practically hijacked the fall campaign, soared so high, plummeted so low, and wound up defending why the GOP had been charged for $150,000 worth of clothing and accessories. "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus," an "aide," unnamed as always, huffed to Newsweek.

Now the press, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, won't have Sarah Palin to kick around anymore. But she went rogue one more time yesterday afternoon, achieving the near-impossible feat of knocking the endless Michael Jackson coverage off the air.

In the end, Palin made monkeys out of the pundits who spent endless hours debating whether she was positioning herself for a 2012 presidential run. And perhaps that gave her a small measure of satisfaction as she stepped out of the white-hot spotlight.

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