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Sarah Palin, finally a fallen star

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin greets the crowd during a campaign rally for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) last week.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin greets the crowd during a campaign rally for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) last week. (Dave Einsel/getty Images)
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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It's possible that Sarah Palin's best quality is that she has none at all. She exists for both her friends and enemies as a fantasy figure. For the left, she is a harbinger of the hard-right government takeover they fear is coming. And for the right, she is the leader -- all instinct and no sophistication -- that they knew would someday lead America out of its current socialist wilderness. The pity for them both is that in reality, not to mention the polls, she sorely disappoints.

I begin with the left. There, Palin has been compared to Pierre Poujade, the French populist who a half-century ago created a movement of small shopkeepers and farmers. It was tinged with anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism (the rumor that Coca-Cola had bought the Cathedral of Notre Dame) and was, as may now seem apparent, in the throes of idiocy. The label Poujadism suggests intolerance, a soft form of fascism.

The first linkage I can find of Palin with Poujade came in a Jonathan Raban article in the London Review of Books. Since then (2008) there have been others -- about 1,420 hits on Google -- and most recently a Feb. 2 essay in the New York Times by Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history. He noted some differences between the Poujadists and the Tea Party folk and between Poujade and Palin, but he nevertheless found they had quite a bit in common. "The Poujadist movement . . . bears a close resemblance to our own Tea Party." It was this statement that ricochets yet.

For some on the left, there was something oddly comforting in such a linkage. It validated their gloomy view of America as a country always about to veer to the hard right. It is a country I do not recognize, but never mind. To these leftists, America is usually at fault in war, greedy in commerce and controlled by either the plutocrats of Wall Street or the Babbitts of Main Street.

But whatever Palin and Poujade have in common, they differ in this significant matter: Poujade's movement was strictly bottom-up. He created it, and it was named for him. In Palin's case, it was the politically greedy John McCain who placed the slipper of fame on her foot -- upon which she put it in her mouth. She said the most astounding things about foreign policy (Alaska is close to Russia, etc.), later fibbed about death panels and, in general, did a spot-on imitation of a ditz. It was a remarkable performance.

Alas, for both the right and the left, Palin is not a leader. She neither founded nor leads a movement and, as far as anyone can tell, has no ideas of her own. She's a validator, satisfying her audience's narcissistic urge to be told they are correct in their thinking. They look at her and see themselves. Ah, love.

As for the right, it, too, refused to see Palin for what she was. A gaggle of neoconservatives, possibly seasick from a cruise up the Alaska coast, disembarked and were struck dumb -- literally -- by Palin's quite evident charisma. For some of them, this was a clear case of what Freud called Shiksa Madness (look it up), while for others it must have something to do with salmon. Whatever, some of them thought they had found the perfect (empty) vessel to regain control of the Republican Party and most of the United States, with the possible exception of the Blue B's -- Boulder, Berkeley and Brooklyn.

The right and the left had their ideological prisms for viewing Palin. Meanwhile, to the consternation of her admirers and detractors alike, the American people were continuously assessing Palin and finally last week rendered a judgment: Not ready for prime time. An astounding 71 percent of them told pollsters they did not find Palin qualified for the presidency. It could not have been otherwise.

The lady from Alaska is a phony. She has sold out for money, quitting office so that she could cash in. She asserted her small-town bona fides, her antipathy both to the establishment and the mainstream media -- and then got herself a ghostwriter, a booking agent and a (Fox News) network contract. She is rich, famous for the metaphorical 15 minutes Andy Warhol allotted us all and, elbows swinging, is forging her way to oblivion. She was neither a threat (the left) nor an opportunity (the right), but just a fantasy -- until the American people turned the lights on.

cohenr@washpost.com


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