Opinion focus with Eugene Robinson: Sarah Palin as America's 'rogue' Evita

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, November 17, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Nov. 17 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

Archive of past discussions.


Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Yes, the real news is happening elsewhere -- in Asia, where the president is conducting high-stakes diplomacy; at Treasury, OMB and the Fed, where officials (I hope) are focused on jobs, jobs, jobs; in the war zones. But hereabouts, it's Sarah Palin Day. This morning's column was about our own Evita, whose life will someday make a great musical. What director wouldn't jump at the chance to put an actual moose on stage? Let's get started.


West Hollywood, Calif.: Dear Gene,

I was thrilled to read your column today as I have been thinking for the last year or so about Sarah Palin's populism and how it compares to Eva Peron's and was surprised that the equivalence was never pointed out. I was steeped in Evita's history for many years as I worked for the company that produced both the stage show and the movie Evita, and I've often been struck by the similarities in their personal styles. (Cue up the CD to "High flying, adored" or "The Rainbow Tour" and it'll give you shivers).

If we draw a timeline from the sans-culottes to the descamisados, how can we define the Palin admirers? What exactly do they feel is missing from their lives that only she and others of her ilk can restore to them?

I have a sinking feeling that it is simply the assumption that no matter how bad they feel, no matter what is missing from their daily lives, no matter how hard the struggle to keep their heads above the debt they're drowning in, no matter that they have no health care available -- GODDAMMIT, THEY'RE WHITE AND CHRISTIAN AND SO WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND THEY ARE OWED SOMETHING! FOR BEING WHITE AND CHRISTIAN,

Sorry. I've further depressed myself by writing this but there you go.

Thanks for everything you write.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. I lived in Buenos Aires for four years, and I can't tell you how many times I went into somebody's home, especially out in the provinces, and there was a faded picture of Eva Peron on the wall. One common thread is the feeling of disenfranchisement among both women's followers, but that may be overly simplistic. I just couldn't get the Evita image out of my mind.


St. Louis MO: Maybe you can tell your readers how easy it is to win a governorship.

People have won government positions with far less successful experience than she has.

She was ambushed on TV. Do you understand what an ambush is? A sucker punch?

Eugene Robinson: Yes, it's hard to win a governorship, and no one can take that away from her. But ambushed on television? Come on. What do you think any interviewer's job is, with any candidate? And anyway, those were not "gotcha" questions. She just whiffed -- and learned from the experience.


Anonymous: You compared Sarah Palin to Evita Peron. Whatever her personal faults, Evita was beloved by the poor who perceived her as their advocate and champion. Her charisma was rooted in caring. Sarah Palin on the other hand is totally self-absorbed, uninformed and uncaring. Sarah Palin is not a tragic figure, simply a sad and selfish opportunist.

Eugene Robinson: Well, at the risk of offending the Peronist faithful, there was a good deal of opportunism and self-absorption in Evita as well.


Oyster Bay, NY: Mr. Robinson, your column is filled with hatred, jealousy, cynicism and elitist insults. Why is all this leftist poison on display and what are the media afraid of? She has not even talked of running for president and all you can talk about is how dumb, vapid and stupid she is. If she were a pro choice democrat and unattractive you guys would adore her. She is a private citizen and intends to speak her mind. She will follow her own path and so as long as she doesn't want to tear up the Constitution, leave her alone.

Eugene Robinson: Leave her alone? Methinks the last thing in the world she wants, as she sells her book, is to be left alone. I don't think I'm guilty of hatred or jealousy, although I plead guilty to cynicism -- occupational trait -- and a certain degree of elitism, in that I've written that I think our presidents should be massively smart and well-informed and I don't think she could be described as either. But you ask what the media are afraid of? She is the Almighty's gift to the media, because she's great copy. And I can tell you that the Democrats I talk to are not quaking in their boots, at least at this point. Polls showing that 60-70 percent of Americans believe her unqualified to be president would make her just about the Democratic Party's favorite Republican candidate, as things now stand.


St. Mary's City, Md.: Your column on Palin was good but didn't go far enough in criticizing her sociological agenda, or in exploring the context behind her demagoguery.

Palin doesn't really speak for social conservatives or hunters or small-town residents. Instead, she panders to the fears and resentments of some members of those groups, offering convenient villains such as urbanites and intellectuals and bureaucrats. Those fears stem from the social changes of the last 40 years or so, and many people who were emotionally invested in the old social order feel threatened and victimized by those changes.

Palin's "mashed potatoes" remark is a clever example of her style of demagoguery. The implied message is that environmentalists allegedly value animals above people, and that vegan extremists pose a threat to meat-lovers.

Seeing Palin follow the examples of Limbaugh and O'Reilly and Glenn Beck is actually sad. That's because change is inevitable and one must work with change instead of fighting it. Is there anyone who speaks to social conservatives who uses that message, or at least is willing to do so?

Eugene Robinson: I think Mike Huckabee is a much more thoughtful social conservative, and there are others. Palin has charisma, though, and it's an inescapable fact that charisma counts in politics.


Philadelphia, PA: Have you ever seen Peter Jennings interview any other person with his glasses on the bridge of his nose, looking over them? He reminded me of a school disciplinarian questioning a student who was already judged to be guilty of some serious infraction.

Eugene Robinson: You're talking about Charlie Gibson. He does it all the time.


Richmond, VA: Gene, I could think of one circumstance where it could be conceivable that Sarah Palin would be a successful candidate for President:

If she ran on an anti-bank/anti-bailout populist platform arguing that when it comes to protecting Wall Street at the expense of everyone else there isn't any significant difference between the two parties. She could ask to be judged on who is against her (i.e. the entire political & media establishment) the way Franklin Roosevelt did. The latest on AIG and the Fed simply reinforces this.

I don't believe that she is qualified to be president but if she were to do this I might actually vote for her. When it comes to Wall Street & Washington & the current financial system I've decided we need to destroy this village in order to save it.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that a populist, anti-Wall Street line would be an interesting approach for the Republicans to take, and also that only a few of them could pull it off. Mitt Romney, for example, would have no credibility running against Wall Street. I wonder whether it would be enough to put Palin over the top.


Richmond, Va.: First off, this is not a Palin Question.

Has anyone pointed out to the people opposed to imprisoning the Guantanamo Bay prisoners in the US that we had over 400,000 POW's in WWII scattered across almost all 50 states and it wasn't such a big deal then? What am I missing here?

Eugene Robinson: You're not missing anything. Germans in POW camps were organizing and trying to escape and doing all they could to further Hitler's campaign to take over the world. We dealt with it.


Visalia, Calif.: I'm not sure how to ask this without sounding dumb, but is there any way to have national politics without everything coming down to abortion? We are never going to agree on so many things, but running the ship of state based on this one issue is just ridiculous. Has anyone researched whether any of the sanctimonious male politicians have actually devoted an equivalent amount of time to helping existing needy children as they do spouting off?

Eugene Robinson: You're talking about the Stupak amendment to the health care reform bill in the House. The reason abortion is such a roadblock is that there's really no compromise position. If you genuinely believe it's murder, how can you let pass an opportunity to add more restrictions etc? We've had something of a truce on abortion -- and most Americans are pro-choice -- but the war has never really ended.


Washington, D.C.: Gene --

Here's the thing. I'm a Republican, and I'll readily admit that Palin has some serious flaws as a presidential candidate (though if you've identified flawless alternatives in either party, I'd be interested in who they are). But you know, she also has some unusual strengths and abilities, and I just can't buy into the vicious caricatures of her that her opponents keep creating. Tina Fey is a brilliant parodist, but at the end of the day Palin is actually a real person with some actual accomplishments, while it seems that many Palin-haters look at her and see only the Fey creation.

So while I don't want to see Palin president, I find myself disposed to root for her in response to what I think are remarkably unfair (and inappropriately personal) attacks. And I guess I'm one of those you describe in the closing observations in your column, who see in some of the attacks on her (for having gone to the wrong schools, talking with the wrong accent, and not being "one of us") a snobbery, and (yes) sexism, that's ugly and, coming from liberals generally self-righteous about such things, hypocritical.

Eugene Robinson: I think your view of Palin, or the way she's treated, is shared by a good number of people. If you recall, though, she's not exactly a shrinking violet. She came out swinging, from that first convention speech. Self-pity does not become her.


Baltimore: Comparisons of Palin to Ronald Reagan seem odd to me. By the time he was nominated for president in 1980, Reagan had already sought the White House twice before. He had served two terms as governor of our nation's most populous state. He may not have been one for detail, but he had a fairly coherent political philosophy -- probably more than most officeseekers do. He had been a national figure for two decades.

Eugene Robinson: I don't buy the Palin-Reagan comparison, either, beyond the common attributes of conservatism and star quality. But Palin's young, and some of her supporters believe she can grow into Reagan eventually -- not by 2012, maybe, but someday. The question is how she would remain active in politics between now and then.


Yuba City, Calif.: I'd liken her image, not her depth, to a female Theodore Roosevelt. The outdoorsy, nature loving, robust, even strange spectacles, just make me think of what his contemporaries saw, and maybe this is part of her attraction. I can see her 'carrying that big stick'.

He also believed in a strict moral code, which reminds me of what is attractive about her, a wholesome, full of integrity icon. Now if she would just write a book about history, instead of a People Magazine of politics, she would begin to have some presidential credibility.

Eugene Robinson: I guess she could resurrect the Bull Moose Party.


Richmond, Va.: As Republican in a better mood now days... Yes, we feel we have Obama on the ropes a little bit.

I was disappointed Palin didn't finish as governor and then run for Senate. I sure don't see her as Pres, but a strong conservative Senator, yes! Do you feel she 1. Could have been elected to the Senate, and 2. Would she be capable in THAT role?

Eugene Robinson: I think quitting as governor is a real problem for her, credibility-wise. But, as I said, she's young. I predicted a while ago -- shortly after last year's Republican convention, actually, on MSNBC -- that if the GOP ticket lost, Palin could run for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's seat in 2010. That would involve trying to knock off a fellow Republican, but there's nothing but bad blood between Palin and the Murkowski family and I think Palin could have won. But she has ruled that out. There's still time, though -- maybe she'll rule it back in...


Valrico, Fla.: Why do Republicans reward "lack of knowledge" and have a hatred for educated people running against them? This was very obvious with Palin and every Republican that runs will equate education with elitist.

Eugene Robinson: Not "every Republican" by a long shot. There is a real split within the party about Palin, and there are those -- Mike Murphy, the political consultant; Steve Schmidt, the villain of "Going Rogue" -- who will say out loud that they think a Palin candidacy would be a disaster for the party. My friend and competitor David Brooks from the New York Times has said that he can't take her seriously. Then again, David is a card-carrying intellectual.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: What happened to "Change we can believe in"? Congress is doing business as it always has with lobbyist for the health care industry in control of the health care legislation and lobbyists' for the financial institutions in control of financial regulatory reform. The so-called public option in the house health care bill is a sham that will solve nothing. The bill simply gives insurance companies more paying customers and thereby more profit. It does nothing to lower health care costs or give everyone better choices. The financial regulations being proposed still allow banks to trade derivatives in private transactions and to trade in their own accounts using depositors and tax payer's money. It is no wonder that the public would vote to toss out the entire congress if given the chance.

Eugene Robinson: Inertia is powerful in Washington. Change is hard, and I don't think the White House anticipated that the Republicans would be as unified and uncompromising as they are. That said, you have to wonder if Obama shouldn't have aimed higher on health care and financial regulation.


Vienna, Va.: Doesn't all this score-settling against campaign staffers make Palin look petty and whiny? It's not what one would say if one really planned a political future. If nothing else, who would want to work on a Palin campaign after that? It only reinforces the sense that she's just out to make a buck.

Eugene Robinson: Believe me, she'll find people to work for her if she decides to run for something. But I've heard comment from a number of folks, including Republicans, who think blaming everything on Nicolle Wallace is a bit... small.


Comparing German POWs: I don't have an issue with the housing of Guantanamo prisoners in the US, but you can't compare WWII German POWs with these prisoners. Many Germans were used by American farmers for labor and were often loosely guarded while on these work details. There was an incident where several Germans were accidentally forgotten about at the end of a work day, and so they hiked on foot back to the POW camp. Very few Germans attempted to escape, and only a handful succeeded. After the war, many Germans emigrated back to the US to live here. Guantanamo detainees working on farms, loosely guarded, emigrating back to the US after release? Nope, they wouldn't want to, and most Americans wouldn't want them to.

Eugene Robinson: As you probably know, many of the original Guantanamo detainees were found to have nothing to do with terrorism. Some of them became more favorably disposed to the United States during their detention, others became more radicalized. To the extent that those who remain at the prison represent a hard core, nobody is talking about sending them out into the fields to pick strawberries. We have some of the most secure prisons in the world. Ain't nobody gonna escape.


Bethesda, MD: Anne Marie Cox - certainly no fan of Palin - agrees that the Newsweek cover pic of Palin is sexist. Is it the accompanying text? The girlish pose?

washingtonpost.com: Newsweek cover: How do you solve a problem like Sarah? (L.A. Times)

Eugene Robinson: There's a rule in politics: Never put on the funny hat. Meaning that when you go campaigning at the state fair, and somebody wants you to put on a viking helmet or something, don't do it. That picture will live forever. Palin did pose for that picture -- it was for a piece in Runners World. I guess you could say it's sexist of Newsweek to run it, but I'd feel more strongly if it were a candid shot -- if she hadn't cooperated. I seem to recall beefcake photos of Barack Obama in Hawaii that were published during the campaign.


Seattle, WA: Washington, DC hit it right on the money. I am willing to debate a candidate's flaws AND strengths, but the ridicule - in tone and subject matter - is unacceptable.

Instead of talking about the very real sexism that existed in the primaries, the election, and today (oh...Newsweek cover), you say, "She's no shrinking violet." It's outrageous to me that we can't have that discussion.

So...let me get this right. 1.) If you are deemed to be able to "take it" - sexism is okay. 2.) Sexism is okay as long as it is directed at someone you ideologically disagree with.

Got it.

I keep forgetting how politicians can quickly leave principles behind once they see a target they need to discredit. Anything goes. Problem is, that's not the job of journalists/editorialists - you should be holding them accountable.

Eugene Robinson: Probably, every female politician is a victim of sexism to some degree, and that's deplorable. But not every female politician crafts the kind of image for herself that Sarah Palin has wrought.


Washington, DC: Okay, Sarah Palin strikes me as ambitious and conniving and a little bit crazy-eyed, BUT at the same time, I find myself being a little skeptical about former McCain staffers' claims that her book is filled with lies about them.

Sure, some of what she's said is probably stretching the truth (at minimum), but at the same time, McCain's cronies aren't exactly made of sunshine and roses. Am I just being paranoid in thinking that they're using negative public opinion of Palin to counter her possibly true claims? I guess what I'm saying is I can totally buy her claims that someone told her to lose weight and to answer questions in a dumbed down fashion etc., and that she truly had voiced some concerns to them.

Eugene Robinson: It is indeed possible. The McCain campaign was hardly a well-oiled machine, to say the least. And anyway, Palin's got the bigger microphone so she'll get a fair hearing for her version of the story.

My time is up for today, folks. Thanks so much for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.


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