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Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' comment overshadows a calibrated message

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 1:30 PM

Sarah Palin's statement Wednesday in response to the Tucson shootings, in which she has found herself at the center of a debate over civility in political discourse, was crafted as both a defense of her own actions and a strike against her critics - but reaction to the statement was dominated by a fresh controversy over her use of the phrase "blood libel."

With the exception of those words, the former Alaska governor's statement was remarkable for its careful calibration - replete with references to "the greatness of our country" and other rhetoric likely to resonate with her base. It was also notable that Palin, known for her often-controversial impromptu tweets, waited four days after the shootings and then released a professionally produced, polished seven-minute video in which she read from a script.

Palin spoke of the "enduring strength of our Republic," described the Constitution as a "sacred charter of liberty" and referred to the "genius" of the founding fathers. "America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week," she said. "We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy."

In Palin's version of events, her controversial actions represented common cause with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who a few days before being critically wounded in the mass shooting had read the First Amendment on the House floor.

"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own," Palin said in the statement. "They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election."

She went on to say: "Within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."

It is not at all clear that Palin intended to use the term "blood libel" in its full historical context. The phrase refers to a centuries-old anti-Semitic slander - the false charge that Jews use the blood of Christian children for rituals - that has been used as an excuse for persecution. The phrase was first used in connection with response to the Arizona shootings in an opinion piece in Monday's Wall Street Journal and has been picked up by others on the right.

While Palin did not explain her decision to use such historically fraught imagery, it would be recognized by religious voters, including the social conservatives who constitute such an important part of her following.

Palin has come under criticism because a map on her Web site during the midterm elections showed districts of congressional Democrats she had targeted for defeat marked with cross hairs. Giffords, whose district was one of those 20, had publicly complained that this was an invitation to violence.

There is no evidence at this point that the suspected gunman, Jared Loughner, was influenced by Palin or any other political figure.

Tim Crawford, the treasurer for Palin's political action committee, said Palin is "her own best spokesperson and she wanted to talk about this."

"The reason we did the video was we wanted the statement in total out there. We wanted the video to be seen in its entirety," he said.

Palin's statement comes as President Obama is headed to Tucson to speak at a service for the victims, and guarantees that her perspective will be part of the story line of the day.

With the exception of the phrase "blood libel," its careful timing and deliberate language also represent a departure from her previous attention-getting Facebook posts and tweets, many of which were reflexive spasms to even small criticisms.

On Thanksgiving, for instance, as most of the nation was still sleepily digesting turkey dinners, she issued an angry blast at the media. It was an apparent reaction to the fact that she herself had been ridiculed for a slip of the tongue in which she referred to North Korea as South Korea.

"The one-word slip occurred yesterday during one of my seven back-to-back interviews wherein I was privileged to speak to the American public about the important, world-changing issues before us," Palin wrote. "If the media had bothered to actually listen to all of my remarks on Glenn Beck's radio show, they would have noticed that I refer to South Korea as our ally throughout, that I corrected myself seconds after my slip-of-the-tongue, and that I made it abundantly clear that pressure should be put on China to restrict energy exports to the North Korean regime."

Those kinds of outbursts could destroy a presidential campaign, and stand as a stark contrast to the statement that Palin released Wednesday.

The new level of political professionalism to her approach - if that indeed is what this represents - also might not be merely a coincidence in its timing.

Republican operatives report that Palin has been calling around in recent weeks to seek advice not only on whether but how she should run for president in 2012. This statement might suggest she is not only seeking that counsel, but taking it as well.

tumultyk@washpost.com Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report

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