The age of Palintology

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 9:36 AM

The media are going rogue.

They just can't help themselves. Journalists are addicted to Sarah Palin. Some love to hate her, some love to love her, all love to dissect or defend her.

Oh, they've tried to generate the same emotion for the public option, for the Afghanistan options, but sadly, that doesn't produce the same level of excitement. No thrill up the leg. No argument about women and sexism. No Tina Fey. No newsmagazine cover with a leggy ex-governor.

Palin is undeniably a crossover hit: a woman, a Republican, a politician, a hunter, a hockey mom, an Alaskan, a media critic, a cultural force, a creationist, the mother of a Down syndrome baby. There's something for everyone to argue about. Hers is a rise-and-fall-and-possible-comeback story.

Even the right is divided. David Brooks says Palin is a "joke"; the Weekly Standard crowd loves her. So you have left-right warfare and right-on-right ridicule.

Reporters who cover candidates and officeholders know all too well that most of them are cautious, poll-tested creatures whose primary aim in life is not to offend. At most they take gentle jabs that we hype into headlines. Palin is different. She likes to smack people around, from Barack Obama ("palling around with a terrorist") to Levi Johnston (posing for porn). And she takes special delight in denouncing the media. More than a year after her fateful encounter with Katie Couric, she's still ripping the CBS anchor for "badgering" her.

The on-the-record pushback from McCainiacs is undermining the book more than the vast left-wing conspiracy. Nicolle Wallace, whom Palin singles out as pushing the Katie interview and promising it would be patty-cake, told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Tuesday that Palin's account was "either rationalization or justification or fiction," and that some of the fights that Palin recounts with the campaign staff "took place entirely in her imagination."

Does Palin pay a price for taking on those who buy ink by the barrel or have satellite uplinks? In some ways, yes, but since the media love focusing on the media, she winds up getting even more column inches and airtime (to which I've just contributed). Journalists are grateful for such a colorful and divisive subject. And that means the Palinpalooza will continue for some time to come.

Palin's least favorite blogger, Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish, catches her in a flat-out contradiction:

"In the unedited version of the Oprah love-fest, we get yet another version of the story about her asking her children if she should run for vice-president. Here's her latest statement broadcast Monday:

"This time, there wasn't a family vote. Other steps in my political life, I've polled the kids, and I have abided by some of the results of the polls that the kids have partaken in. This time, no.

"This is what she said last fall:

"It was a time of asking the girls to vote on it, anyway. And they voted unanimously, yes. Didn't bother asking my son because, you know, he's going to be off doing his thing anyway, so he wouldn't be so impacted by, at least, the campaign period here. So ask the girls what they thought and they're like, absolutely. Let's do this, mom.

"I just want to reiterate the details of the first story. We even find the result of the girls' vote: it was unanimous. And we discover that Track was not polled. But none of this happened at all.

"This is not a faulty memory, since the event took place very soon before her first lie about it. And a year later, her memory remembers the truth. So it was a delusional fantasy, or something she thought sounded cool, and had done on previous occasions, so she said it because she figured no one would ever know the truth, so why not make it up?. . . .

"No one in the media, apart from the Dish, ever called her on it.

"This is why I will not relent. A person who could have been president told lie after lie after lie in a campaign and the media simply let the fantasies stand."

From the right, Rich Lowry captures the ritual nature of the debate:

"It's September 2008 all over again. All the same players are lining up to put a good hate on Sarah Palin. She's like an isotope designed to course throughout our politics and culture, lighting up press bias, self-congratulatory liberalism, Christianity-hating secularism, and intellectual condescension wherever they are found.

"The contempt of her enemies only increases the ardor of her fans. Palin is the most divisive woman in America, supplanting a Hillary Clinton who is losing her electric political charge as Barack Obama's mostly irrelevant secretary of state. First, Palin divided Democrats and Republicans. Then she divided the conservative commentariat. Finally, she divided the McCain campaign itself, which devolved into an ugly internal war over its vice-presidential nominee. . . .

"Yes, the campaign had a hugely difficult task in taking Palin from 0 to 60 mph on the national stage, but it handled it badly -- and, in the end, gracelessly.

"Palin has lived to tell the tale because going rogue is now her operating principle. Her base of support is so intense, she doesn't need supply lines into the political or media establishment. She transformed her Facebook page into a must-read organ of conservative opinion by lobbing 'I can't believe she said that' rhetorical bombshells. No political consultant would ever approve of her M.O.; for Palin's purposes, no political consultant could possibly improve on it."

I bet Hillary, who says she'd have a theoretical cup of coffee with Sarah, is happy to give up the "most divisive" title.

From the left, Salon's Joan Walsh is already OD'ing:

"I've gotten e-mail and Twitter messages begging me to ignore Sarah Palin's return to the national conversation, from her Oprah appearance to her book debut to the icky, Sarah-in-shorts Newsweek cover (I sure am glad Jon Meacham decided to make his mag the classy one, all about ideas!) and everything in between. I can't make Salon a Palin-free zone (nor do I want to). . . .

"Now that her Oprah appearance is over -- and boy, did Oprah let the liberals in her audience down; what a waste! -- let me confess to my own Palin fatigue. I just can't take seriously the idea that she'll ever be president, even after her moderately successful softball game with Oprah. Palin sealed that fate when she quit being governor (although maybe she can run with Lou Dobbs on the All Quitters ticket in 2012). She'll never obtain the record or the reliability she needs to run credibly for president now that she gave up the modestly challenging job of running Alaska. I don't see her ever having the self-discipline or the humility to admit how very much she'd need to learn to be remotely qualified.

"On top of everything else, she seems like a vindictive, spiteful person, judging from her reputation in Alaska politics, her open warfare with the McCain campaign and her juvenile tit-for-tat with her 19-year-old grandbaby-daddy Levi Johnston. If she can't brush off Levi's provocations, how would she handle Ahmadinejad?"

That Newsweek cover is really kicking up a fuss, and CBN's David Brody is appalled:

"You've got to hand it to the folks at Newsweek. They have accomplished being biased and sexist at the same time. Quite a feat. This cover has got to be a new low right? They don't use a photo of Palin on the campaign trail. No instead they take the sexy Runners World photo. Yes she posed for it but don't tell me they didn't purposely use that photo to make a point? I predict this cover will become a bigger story over the next 24-48 hours and let's face it. This isn't JUST about media bias. This cover should be insulting to women politicians. Where's the sexy photo of Mitt Romney? Why not a picture of Tim Pawlenty with an unbuttoned shirt relaxing on a couch in the Twin Cities?"

Showing a glowing Newsweek cover on Hillary as first lady, Brody says: "Conservative women are portrayed as nuts and dopey. Liberal women are heroes for the next generation."

Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham defends the cover to Politico: "We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do. We apply the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female: does the image convey what we are saying? That is a gender-neutral standard."

The Oprah reviews are still pouring in. Michelle Cottle gives Palin her due in the New Republic:

"There was no Tom Cruise-esque couch-jumping moment. No one wept or cursed or called anyone an ignorant slut. Both gals were unfailingly polite. Oprah was gentle with her poking and prodding. Palin neither embarrassed herself nor went after Oprah with a Bowie Knife, exceeding the extremely low expectations that only somewhat justifiably plague her.

"Overall, I thought the in-studio bits weren't particularly compelling. Palin seemed way too amped up, almost manic in her perkiness, and not terribly at ease, especially when compared to the low-key, soothing tones of Earth Mother Oprah. . . .

"All things considered, the sit-down should prove a plus for Palin. That said, it did raise a few questions about the long-term prospects for her reinvention tour. This is clearly a woman who has neither forgotten nor forgiven the many injuries she feels were unfairly visited on her last year by the media, the Democrats, the McCain campaign, and other 'haters.' It's possible she realizes that she made some significant mistakes, but that realization is clearly buried under a massive glacier of resentment and irritation at others."

In the Nation, John Nichols accuses Palin of playing small ball:

"The most amusing of Palin's apologists stare longingly enough at her photos to see something Reaganesque. They need to look again.

"Reagan was all about big ideas. You could disagree with the guy, but you could not question his boldness -- or the enthusiasm that went with it. Palin's the opposite; her idea of a "big idea" wouldn't make it as a footnote in the Reagan lexicon.

"Palin has never had grand ideas or grand ambitions -- a point reinforced frequently in the 413-page-long Going Rogue. She has always been more than satisfied with petty squabbles inside the party and on its fringe; witness the delight with which she joined the sniping over the conservative credentials of the Republican nominee in this month's special election to fill the District 23 congressional seat in upstate New York.

"Where Reagan tried to erect a big tent, Palin is busy kicking the infidels out of a very small temple.

"Reagan read newspapers and magazines by the stack, combing them for information, ideas and new ways to argue the conservative brief. Palin can't be bothered, as her agonizing interviews last fall with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric illustrated."

Palin says she does too read but was too annoyed to describe her favorites for Couric. But it's fair to say she's not exactly known for big policy ideas, and this book tour isn't changing that.

Stay classy, Shadegg

The New York Post spanks a wayward lawmaker:

"A loudmouth congressman unleashed some twisted logic on Mayor Bloomberg over his support for holding the 9/11 trial in Manhattan, sniping that Hizzoner will regret his decision when it's his 'daughter that's kidnapped at school by a terrorist.'

"I saw the mayor of New York said today, 'We're tough, we can do it,' " Rep. John Shadegg bellowed on the floor of Congress on Monday night. 'Well, Mayor, how are you going to feel when it's your daughter that's kidnapped at school by a terrorist? taunted Shadegg, an Arizona Republican. . . .

"The shameful Shadegg backed off his incendiary remarks only after they drew widespread media attention yesterday -- but then still couldn't resist repeating his point."

Is it me, or are more and more congressmen saying outrageous things to draw attention to themselves?

Covering Clinton

Speaking of Hillary, as we were earlier, here's an assessment from the New Republic's Michael Crowley:

"The hallmark of Hillary's tenure as America's top diplomat has hardly been robotic precision. It has instead been a curious propensity for public statements that require amendment, clarification, and implicit retraction -- as illustrated, most recently, by comments she made about Israeli settlement policy that reportedly baffled even her own aides. Perhaps because she is a smart and independent-minded woman, Hillary has taken a self-consciously blunt-speaking approach to her job and shows no sign of apologizing for it. . . .

"But it's not a style in keeping with a White House that generally demands complete message control. For a president who hates drama, Barack Obama has installed a secretary of state who keeps creating it. . . .

"While many people think of Clinton as scripted and cautious, other facets of her personality -- temper, self-assurance, sarcasm -- have always broken through her robotic fa├žade. Indeed, the hyper-disciplined Hillary of memory is an exaggeration. When she was a presidential candidate, Clinton's mouth repeatedly caused her trouble. Think back: There was her surprisingly inept stumble at a pivotal debate on the subject of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants; her false recollection of landing under sniper fire in Bosnia in the 1990s; her angry outburst of 'shame on you, Barack Obama!' at an Ohio press conference; and her utterly tone-deaf invocation of Bobby Kennedy's 1968 assassination as a reason for continuing her campaign even after Obama had effectively sewn up the Democratic nomination."

Take that, Yankee haters

Been meaning to get to this WSJ piece by Andrew Zimbalist that at least partly knocks down the thesis that the Yanks bought their world championship:

"Judging from the media coverage, it seems that the only thing the Yankees didn't do on their way to buying the 2009 World Series is ask the federal government for a bailout. But is it true that the Yankees bought their trophy? Are the championship rings the players will take home simply a byproduct of the largest payroll in Major League Baseball? And if so, how come the Yankees haven't won the fall classic since 2000, even though the franchise led the way in payroll each year and actually spent more last year (when it missed the playoffs) than it did this year?

"It's a little surprising, but the statistical relationship between a team's winning percentage and its payroll is not very high. When I plot payroll and win percentage on the same graph, the two variables don't always move together. In other words, knowing a team's payroll does not enable one to know a team's win percentage.

"More precisely, depending on the year, I find somewhere between 15% and 30% of the variance in team win percentage can be explained by the variance in team payroll. That means between 70% and 85% of a team's on-field success is explained by factors other than payroll. Those factors can include front office smarts, good team chemistry, player health, effective drafting and player development, intelligent trades, a manager's in-game decision-making, luck, and more."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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