Shooting From the Hip, With a Smile to Boot

(Susan Walsh/AP)

The heart of Sarah Palin's appeal is --

Wait, did you see that? There! She did it again: wrinkled up her nose in a way that either looks like a sneer or is adorably reminiscent of Samantha from "Bewitched." Depending on whom you talk to.

Next time you see a clip of the Republican vice presidential nominee, try this exercise. Mute your TV and just watch that face. How often do you see someone in political life so extravagantly expressive? The eyebrows go up, the shoulder leans in, the thumb jauntily gestures backward, the tongue actually fixes in the cheek. To mock Barack Obama, she licks her finger and holds it to the imaginary wind! And that smile, that nearly ever-present smile, which either indicates -- oh, dear, here we go again -- that she's sarcastic and dismissive or that she's letting you in on a very clever joke.

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People love her so. People hate her so. At the heart of it is the delivery, a style of speaking we'll see again in tomorrow night's debate, a style that reaches past folksy and veers into the territory of -- to hell with it, cue the charges of sexism -- cute.

"She's perky, she's spunky," says Republican speechwriter Landon Parvin, who has written for both Presidents Bush. "She has this quality -- in a 1950s comedy, her father would call her 'Button.' "


"This allows her to get away with murder," he says.

All you wannabe hockey moms who imagine yourselves having coffee with Sarah Palin and swapping five-minute dinner recipes? Who find it endearing when Palin refers to her husband as "my guy"? Who like the smiling certainty in her tone, the determination in her squint?This is for you.

And all you Pal-lergics who dislike not only her hard-edged politics but that spoonful of sugar she serves it with? Who say her manner reminds you of -- we'll quote here from a Pal-lergic named Judi Dickerson who coaches actors on dialogue -- "the snotty head cheerleader in high school who was untouchable because she was always gonna win"? This is for you, too.

Sarah Palin is many things -- somber is not one of them. There's something about her delivery that suggests she's almost always having fun. You know how they call Joe Biden the happy warrior? Palin has a similar quality -- the ability to attack without seeming angry. Some of that is the smile on her face and the evident humor in her voice, as Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's former press secretary, points out.

But there's a lot more at work. It starts with the way Palin's delivery allows her to leap through the camera into your living room. Perhaps in part because of her background as a television reporter and beauty pageant competitor, she seems to understand how the camera works.

"What she knows is that the camera is a thief," says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who has worked for former House speaker Dennis Hastert and former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, among others. "The camera will steal your emotions and make you flat, and what she's doing is over-emphasizing her emotions, over-emphasizing her delivery, in order to get that realness across to the camera."

The realness is what her fans talk about -- that she's like them, that she doesn't seem contrived. "We feel like she talks like we do," says Susan Geary, a Richmond retiree who attended a McCain-Palin rally in Fairfax last month. "Like she's sitting in your kitchen."

There's a consistency to Palin's appeal -- if you go back and look at old clips of her, you see many of the same stylistic elements -- the warmth and the eager delivery, the voice that drops and rises emphatically, the dropped g's.

"That's been her bread and butter for 20 years, from the day she sat down in front of the TV cameras to do her sportscasting," says Anchorage-based pollster Ivan Moore. "Her success in her political career has been based on being able to project this enormously friendly, enormously appealing physical presence -- and, some people would argue, use it to conceal this very much more ruthless and nakedly political character."

Palin's fans are drawn to her story, that folk-hero combination of caribou-hunting toughness and traditional femininity that John McCain's campaign has played up. For many Palin supporters, her attractiveness does not weaken her appeal -- rather, it balances those tales of valor on the tundra. Supporters have charged her critics with sexism but at the same time, at the GOP convention, delegates wore buttons that said "Hottest VP From the Coolest State." For a while, Cindy McCain was introducing Palin as a "true Western woman," evoking images of pretty prairie wives with rifles who could out-hunt their husbands and still get dinner on the table. (Hot chicks with guns being a beloved American archetype.)

They are also drawn to the notion of Palin's PTA-mom-just-like-you-ness, which is enhanced by the hair, which has not been cut short in the style of many political women, and the voice, which has not been brought down to a deeper register, or stripped of its Alaska-by-way-of-middle-America nasality. Palin does more than mention her five children as biographical fact in appearances -- she also speaks in mom language. What other major political figure would attempt what she said at her welcome-home rally in Fairbanks last month?

"I see some of our staff members here and cabinet members," she told the audience at a rally. "I can't wait to give you guys a hug."

Palin's huggability is evidence of her accessibility -- or of her lack of gravitas, depending on where you sit. When she met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in New York recently, he called her "gorgeous" and joked he might hug her. In response, she laughed.

Much of Palin's appeal -- as well as what some find grating -- is about the language she chooses, which is folksy in the extreme. She says "heck" and "darn" and "gosh" and "shoot" and "oh, gee." She says, "Guys and gals, our regulatory system is outdated." And: The nation's financial system "needs some shakin' up and some fixin.' " She pronounces things "awesome" and "cool," as in: "He's an awesome bundle of joy" (baby Trig) and "It was so cool growin' up in this church and gettin' saved here" (the Wasilla Assembly of God). The critics -- she calls 'em "haters."

Could central casting produce a more ideal messenger for the new Republican populism?

"I'm sure she's not from Alaska -- she's been sitting on a Hollywood sound stage for years waiting for this," says Paul Costello, the former press aide to Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis. "She's so unbelievably perfect. . . . Even the red ruby shoes that she's been wearing."

In speeches, Palin's comedic timing is spot-on and her intonation is exaggerated, sweeping her audience along on the current of her message. "Very story-timey," says John Neffinger, a communications consultant who coaches corporate speakers and Democratic congressional candidates. "She varies her intonation all over the place so you know exactly what feelings she's trying to convey. Lots of warmth, very sing-songy."

In the few interviews she has given, or when taking questions from voters, Palin speaks with speed and a rat-a-tat delivery, as if a pause were a sign of weakness. Sometimes she drops her voice to a rock-and-roll growl. Her hands move in concert, pointing to her lips, jabbing over her shoulder. Her delivery is "decisive, task-focused," says Ken Brousseau, who consults with executive search firm Korn/Ferry International on corporate leadership styles. "Very black and white." Contrast that with Barack Obama's more deliberative style, his long "uuuhs," his concessions to the opposition. ("John, you're absolutely right," in the presidential debate, over and over.)

When she's forced outside her comfort zone, as has happened a few times of late, Palin tends to "slip back to her talking points," as CBS's Katie Couric recently put it. John McCain is a maverick. Lots of things need some shakin' up. Palin may try to turn a question around ("In what respect, Charlie?") or stall when asked for examples to bolster her argument ("I'll try to find you some and I'll bring 'em to ya!")

"Forgive me, Mrs. Palin," faux Katie Couric said to faux Sarah Palin on last week's "Saturday Night Live," "but it seems to me that when cornered you become increasingly adorable."

There's a youthfulness and an enthusiasm there -- Palin is all emoticons; Rachel Ray as candidate for higher office. (When she ran for mayor of Wasilla in 1996, her campaign ad boasted upbeat, jazzy music and a slogan reminiscent of daytime TV: "Positively Sarah.") She speaks with supreme confidence (Ya can't blink, Charlie). On Monday, she said she looked forward to meeting Senate veteran Joe Biden at their debate.

"I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, the second grade," she told an audience in Columbus, Ohio -- emphasizing her youth, as well as suggesting an unusual attentiveness to the earliest speeches of Biden, who was sworn in when she was 8.

Perhaps, suggests former Miss America Kate Shindle, an undecided Republican, there's a touch of the pageant world to Palin's voice, to her careful adherence to sound bytes, and that "cheerful aggressiveness" that Shindle calls "part cheerleader, part news anchor and part drill sergeant."

The confidence is underscored by something Palin does frequently at the ends of her sentences. She sets her lips in forceful line (perfectly captured by Tina Fey in her first "Saturday Night Live" impersonation) as if to communicate that the matter is settled.

Now mute the television again. Watch Palin's body. She expresses excitement through encouraging nods as well as what Karen Bradley -- a University of Maryland dance professor who studies body movement -- calls this "little shoulder wiggle." And watch that nose wiggle -- which Parvin, the Republican speechwriter, says sometimes conveys "a cute determination" and sometimes "a cute distastefulness." And sometimes, it operates as a sort of "exclamation point," conveying agreement, he says. He calls her "Gidget goes to Washington."

"She is playing into a cultural stereotype," says Drew Westen, a psychiatry professor at Emory University who also works as a Democratic consultant and wrote "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." And the stereotype? Westen cites Marlo Thomas in "That Girl," Mary Tyler Moore in the "The Dick Van Dyke Show," Sally Field in "The Flying Nun" -- a model of perky femininity that "was really salient in the early '60s before the sexual revolution and the cultural revolution took hold."

These physical and rhetorical habits set Palin in relief to Hillary Clinton, who projected great strength but much less of what one Democratic political consultant calls "traditional feminine warmth." Which was why it caused such a splash when Clinton once told a crowd, "I'm your girl" -- there is little that's girly about Hillary Clinton's public persona. Palin calls herself a "gal" and it's utterly believable.

"She's not a woman trying to deliver a speech like a man, and there is an integrity to that," says Parvin.

And all of which means Sarah Palin is either great or awful, depending on whom you talk to, because her style and her conservative beliefs are either post-feminist or the antithesis of feminism. If Palin's cuteness is disarming to her supporters, it is troubling to those who worry that she lacks intellectual heft, and infuriating to those who feel she's being coddled. Not too long ago, CNN anchor Campbell Brown suggested the McCain campaign was being sexist by shielding Palin from interviews. Acting coach Dickerson suggests that Palin gets to be as nakedly political as any other candidate while being shielded from retaliation because of the perception that she is, after all, just a gal.

"You have a very glamorous, pretty woman with, actually, a very girly delivery -- but what comes out of her are the words of a very savvy, very tough politician," says Dickerson. "It creates a mixed message of allowing her to really say anything that she wants."

Then again, who decides what's fair? Sarah Palin is hugging us all into confusion.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company