Sarah Palin's effort to defuse controversy backfires with 'blood libel' comment

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) releases a statement Wednesday morning denouncing efforts to blame her for Saturday's Tucson shooting rampage.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:00 AM

The presidential-quality stagecraft was there: an American flag over Sarah Palin's left shoulder and another over her heart. So was the rhetorical polish, with its invocations of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, God and Ronald Reagan.

And after four days of near silence, the timing guaranteed that Palin would be written into the story line of President Obama's visit to comfort grief-stricken Tucson after a massacre there.

But if the statement that Palin put out Wednesday was designed to tamp down the criticism of her incendiary style of politics, it turned out to have the opposite effect.

Within minutes of the video and its accompanying Facebook post going viral on the Internet, all of that was subsumed by a new furor over Palin's choice of two words to describe her critics in the media: "blood libel."

Her choice of that provocative phrase underscored the challenge and the contradiction that confront the Republican former Alaska governor as she undertakes a new strategy to retool her image and elevate her stature in preparation for a possible presidential run in 2012.

A presidential campaign would pit Palin's ambition against her impulses and test her ability to expand her reach beyond the narrow slice of the population that rallies behind her.

Palin has often invited controversy and helped to shape the national debate by using words as blunt instruments - such as her memorable accusation that Obama has made a practice of "palling around with terrorists" and her contention that his health-care law would include "death panels. " It has been a hallmark of her rise and source of her political star power.

Her statement Wednesday brought yet another visceral response, though this time, it was one Palin did not necessarily intend or expect.

"Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn," Palin said in the video. "That is reprehensible."

Blood libel - a phrase that other conservatives have also used in recent days - was her way of decrying liberal critics who had tried to draw a connection between Palin's campaign rhetoric and the Tucson shootings.

But it also has a specific, ugly historical context. Blood libel is the centuries-old anti-Semitic myth that Jews use the blood of Christian children for rituals such as baking unleavened bread during Passover. It was used to justify persecution of Jews.

Her choice of words immediately overshadowed the point she was trying to make.

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