Who said Sarah Palin doesn’t read? In September 2008, I wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Mark Burnett–the creator of Survivor and the father of reality television–had become the Republicans’ intellectual god as the G.O.P. had grasped, with something like creative genius, the fact that in contemporary American democracy authority had to be humbled before it could lead.
And here is Sarah Palin’s new reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, produced by Mark Burnett, in which Ms. Palin makes a point of humbling herself, again and again: professing fear as she is stuck halfway up a glacier she is attempting to climb; shooting skeet and missing while mistakenly ejecting a shell into her face; insulted for her “prom hair” by daughter Bristol; losing to her husband, Todd, in a kayak race. Cleaning fish blood and guts off the bottom of a fishing boat, she mocks herself: “All diva all the time.” At one point in this weekly portrayal of her family’s summertime expeditions, she exclaims, “I was so cocky, I’m being punished for it.”
Last week, President Obama made a point of appearing at a White House window, for all the world’s photographers to see, holding an ice pack to his mouth after a stray elbow during a basketball game put a cut in his lip that required 12 stitches. The stitches were not in time. Mr. Obama is learning, stiffly, to play the humbling game too late. It was Ms. Palin’s humiliation by the liberal media that made her a heroine in the eyes of her supporters in the first place. Then came her book, and her gig at Fox News, and her own media triumph over the media. Now she is using her new TV show to humble herself once more. You realize, yet again, that although Ms. Palin, with the help of the economic meltdown, lost John McCain the election, she and her legions won the political war.
The remarkable thing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska is that even as you recoil from her smarmy asides about the importance of family, repeated with mechanical coldness many times each episode, you find yourself moved by some of the most deliberately scripted, patently insincere scenes in the history of modern entertainment.
The entire staff of The New York Review of Books could not but melt when Todd picks up their son Trig, who has Down’s syndrome, and the child laughs that self-devouring, self-delighted laugh of little boys as his father carries him into the house. There is nothing more humbling than a son or daughter hurt by nature beyond love’s repair. Several times, Ms. Palin uses the wilderness backdrop to make the point that “Mother Nature” always wins. In that regard, the entire series is devoted to illustrating survivalist profiles in courage. The Palins zip around in small death traps as Sarah reminds us that Alaska “leads the country in [small-plane] fatalities.” Still, they must fly. Ferocious-seeming brown bears approach their canoe. Still, they must fish. We are told that climbers routinely fall into crevasses that are several hundred feet deep. Still, they must ascend.
This, we are meant to see, is how people live with dignity without the indignity of government intrusion. This is how people get through their lives. And, indeed, this is what the more reflective do not understand about their bonds with the less reflective. We are all, regardless of how much we think and read, borne hither and thither by the tides of work and love. Todd struggles with their eldest son, Track. Sarah struggles with their eldest daughter, Bristol. “Don’t retreat, just reload!” she exhorts Bristol, who at that very moment, on a different channel, was magnifying her mother’s humility by being humbled herself, yet “reloading” herself, week after week, on Dancing With the Stars.
An episode entirely devoted to the Palins’ fishing for halibut on a commercial fishing boat shows Sarah (ever so daintily) thwacking a fish unconscious with a club and then gutting another one. “It smells like work. It smells like money,” she declares. Liberals get their Omega-3 amiably, as a supplement, and that is the problem–all those federal supplements and entitlements. But the liberals cannot talk about creating jobs unless they know the true facts of work. Even the Palin children are named after facts, as if they were eponymous figures of myth symbolizing the unyielding, untranscendent nature of life: Bristol (after Alaska’s Bristol Bay); Track; Willow; Piper. Liberals, on the other hand, are weak with transcendent, idealistic talk.
And liberals still don’t get the Palin appeal, especially liberal women, perhaps because she is the hard-working female professional’s worst nightmare: the cunning, amoral sylph who uses her sexual appeal to get what she doesn’t deserve. In The New Yorker, the usually superb Nancy Franklin watches Sarah Palin’s Alaska and throws up her hands: “I can’t say what Palin is really up to with this show.” The only response The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley has to Ms. Palin’s masterstroke of self-humbling as she clutches the glacier in terror is to sneer that Ms. Palin’s “high-pitched voice is so piercing it could trigger an avalanche.”
The most mind-boggling misperception of Ms. Palin’s appeal came a few weeks ago, from Maureen Dowd. Comparing Ms. Palin to Marilyn Monroe, Ms. Dowd proclaimed that Marilyn was superior to Sarah because the former had read “some” literature and had a big library, while the unlettered latter can’t speak English well. “In Marilyn’s America, there were aspirations,” laments Ms. Dowd, who apparently has forgotten the name “Doris Day.” But Marilyn was also used, abused and humiliated by men all her life. Sarah won’t allow anyone to get over on her, and she gets her own back every time. Women are drawn to her precisely because she is the anti-Marilyn. And by the way, dear Maureen, Glenn Beck speaks faultless English. And Goebbels wrote a novel in faultless, cultivated German.
Ms. Palin might well run for president, but she would never win. She is too thin-skinned, self-centered and ill-informed. And despite her storytelling and image-making capacities, she cannot hide the earthy, homely, everyday fact that her own social type in the grand human narrative is that of The Bitch. At one point in her show, a fisherman puts the still-beating heart of a halibut in her hand. It is a strange, wondrous, unsettling thing. Ms. Palin looks at it for an instant and then tosses it indifferently overboard. “Too weird,” she says. Her own heart is that of a shallow teenaged girl. She is Paris Hilton with sled dogs. Her political destiny is to be a sometimes consequential political outlier.
But a political figure with Sarah Palin’s mythmaking talents and common touch, yet without her deficiencies … that would be a whole different story. Mock her appeal at your peril.