In the days after John McCain unveiled Sarah Palin as his running mate, David Plotz started having dreams about the Alaska governor. Plotz, who edits the online magazine Slate, said the dreams were “non-specific” but negative. “She appeared as a threatening ominous figure,” Plotz said in an interview, adding, “I don’t usually dream very much.” His colleagues were dreaming about Palin too. “I thought, this is odd. I don’t think anyone is dreaming about Joe Biden.” So Plotz asked his readers if the same thing was happening to them. He got roughly 700 responses—of which 200, he says, chastised him for writing about something so frivolous. But the rest were eager to share. Conservative men dreamed they were marrying the pistol-packing hockey mom or performing acts that Plotz deemed “unrepeatable.” Some women dreamed she was their pal. “And there was a huge set in which Palin killed animals, or ordered the dreamer to kill animals. In one, she shot all the animals in the zoo. In one, the dreamer was an animal killed by Sarah Palin,” says Plotz. There were several in which Palin “appears as a genial, sympathetic figure and morphs into a scary person murdering animals.” In others, she “emasculated” McCain, who appeared as a shadowy figure fading into the background.
It didn’t take a dream interpreter to see that Palin had burst forth from the backwoods of American politics with her rifle aimed right at the fragile psyche of Democrats. Those doomed animals? For a while it seemed they were Democratic electoral hopes. Before Palin was unveiled, Barack Obama was leading by three to four points in the polls. In the week after her convention debut, most polls showed either a tie or a lead for McCain. “It looked like everything Democrats had hoped for was going to go for naught,” says Plotz. “There was a panic about her that manifested itself in the subconscious.”
How bad did it get? Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California at Irving, with a Ph.D. from Harvard, confessed in a Sept. 11 posting on the liberal blog Huffington Post that he had developed an “obsession” and an “addiction” to Palin. “I read everything I can about her. I watch TV, hoping Wolf Blitzer will say something about her. I get irritable waiting for the next Maureen Dowd column about her. I’ve come to understand that this is not a bad habit, or a moral failing—it’s a disease.” Marty Kaplan, a speech writer for former vice-president Walter Mondale, wrote: “My therapist told me that I’d be astonished if I knew how many emergency calls she got the night that Sarah Palin gave her convention speech.”
And that was just the men. “All of my women friends, a week ago Monday, were on the verge of throwing themselves out windows,” an author and anti-war activist, Nancy Kricorian of Manhattan, told the New York Sun a week after the convention. “People were flipping out. Every woman I know was in high hysteria over this. Everyone was just beside themselves with terror that this woman could be our president—our potential next president.” Blog commentators declared themselves scared, disgusted and enraged. “I am angry. I am infuriated,” wrote the popular mommy-blogger Heather Armstrong on her blog dooce.com, where she rarely talks politics. One female attorney wrote to an advice columnist at the online magazine Salon that her work was suffering because she spent all her time looking online for more damning information about the governor.
There was a double bitterness for those who had supported Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman who built her own political campaign, mapped out her own positions on the issues, dominated the primary debates, and raised her own funds. Palin, sweeping onto a ticket while praising Clinton’s “grace” and the cracks that she put in the glass ceiling, declared “the women of America are not finished yet”—like the perky cheerleader beating the frumpy valedictorian in the school election. Anti-Palin women’s groups were formed on the Internet, including Facebook. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women, played it cool, limiting her Palin comments to, “Her policies are wrong for women.” But for Palin’s angry foes, it was more than a disagreement with her policies, which, after all, were John McCain’s. The repulsion was downright visceral.
Republicans came up with a name for it: Palin derangement syndrome—a cousin of Bush derangement syndrome, which the columnist Charles Krauthammer coined in 2003 to mean the irrational paranoia about anything having to do with the sitting President. “What all the attackers have in common is an almost pathological hatred and attendant desire to project upon Palin all of their worst fears, prejudices, and in some cases, fantasies,” wrote conservative commentator Cinnamon Stillwell in the San Francisco Chronicle. She noted that in Salon magazine, writer Gary Kamiya likened Palin to a “dominatrix,” while University of Michigan Middle East studies professor Juan Cole compared her to a “Muslim fundamentalist” and a member of the Taliban.
Then came the trickle of halting and at times incoherent television interviews, and Democratic anger gave way to relief, and some bipartisan embarrassment. In the National Review, one conservative writer, Kathleen Parker, called on Palin to step aside before she did more damage. “Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League. No one hates saying that more than I do,” Parker wrote. “Like so many women, I’ve been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I’ve also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.”
On the eve of her vice-presidential debate on Oct. 2, the McCain-Palin ticket was polling at nine points below the Obama-Biden ticket. The expectations going into the debate could not have been lower. But Palin proved that, like George W. Bush, she thrives on being “misunderestimated.” She may have once been a hockey mom, but she is more like a figure skater: getting up after pratfalling in the most spectacular fashion, continuing on with the routine, and smiling, always smiling—even when delivering lines in the debate like, “We will never allow a second Holocaust.”
She smiled through her “darn rights” and “doggone its” and “you betchas!” She made no major mistakes, and spoke through the camera to the “hockey moms and Joe Six Packs” at home. But where supporters saw a quick study, critics saw a puppet straining to repeat hastily crammed talking points. Parker, who had called for Palin to step aside for the good of the Republican ticket, conceded that in the debate, Palin had improved: “She did her homework, studied hard, and delivered with spunk,” she wrote. But, she added, “Still, I had the uneasy feeling throughout that I was witnessing a data dump from a very appealing droid.”
After the debate, a CBS poll showed that both Biden and Palin raised their favourability rankings to 40 per cent. But a lot of people weren’t buying it. Thirty-two per cent of viewers had an “unfavourable” impression of Palin after the debate, while only 19 per cent were unfavourably disposed to Biden. Likewise, 75 per cent considered Biden to be ready to be president, and only 42 per cent considered Palin ready.
With her debate performance, Palin again proved that she can push the emotional buttons of her political foes more forcefully, and get under their skin more deeply, than any other politician in recent memory. At least, not since Hillary Rodham Clinton did it to the other side. Why the visceral reaction to the Alaska governor? We might start with the winks. Palin-lovers adored them during the VP debate. “I’m sure I’m not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, ‘Hey, I think she just winked at me,’ ” wrote Rich Lowry in the National Review. “And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America. This is a quality that can’t be learned; it’s either something you have or you don’t, and man, she’s got it.”
Critics saw something more sinister. Blogger Andrew Sullivan, whose page on The Atlantic magazine website has become something of a clearing house for Palin criticism, posted a 1932 cartoon entitled Betty Boop for President and commented on its “unnerving prescience.” In it, the cartoon Betty, barely contained in a bustier and garter, does a lot of winking in her cartoon campaign speech. “What this country is in need of is a lot of ‘heidy-ho!’ ” she chirps. “When I’m the president, I’ll give you all a great big kiss, when I’m the president.” Wink. Wink. She wins the election.
Critics said that if Clinton had started winking and flirting from the podium, she would have been laughed off the stage. “Hillary Clinton was the ultimate serious candidate. She was seen as mannish in some respects by the electorate,” observes Cynthia Harrison, an associate professor of history and women’s studies at George Washington University. “Palin is quite the opposite. She’s winking and going out of her way to use colloquialisms. She’s playing up her femininity. Her free-wheeling coquettish appeal—some people say it’s so refreshing, such a breath of fresh air. But people who don’t agree with her say she’s not taking it seriously enough, that her mannerisms are troubling [for someone] on the world stage. I’ve heard people say that if she ever got to be president they would be so embarrassed that we’d be represented by this woman.”
Kate Richmond, editor of the newsletter The Feminist Psychologist and a professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., said there was a lot of anger in her social circle about the Palin pick and her debate performance, largely because of her policies, but also because of the example she was setting for other women—that sexy and maternal wins. “Social-psychological research shows that the women who get ahead tend to be seen as the iconic bitch or liked in a sexual way,” Richmond says. “One way is to play like a man—know the issues, be smart, be ahead of the game, like Hillary Clinton. The other is to be liked, to be attractive. Sarah Palin is reaching out to white male voters and doing it in a folksy, flirty, attractive way.” There is something threatening about watching flirty succeed where sober couldn’t. “It’s scary. It does suggest that if it can happen at the presidential level then it could happen in any woman’s work or home life,” Richmond says.
And Palin’s ambition unnerves Democrats the way Clinton’s once did Republicans. Palin herself has reminded the Republican base that she could be president. In her convention speech, she compared herself to president Harry Truman, ostensibly because he was a former haberdasher who also came from a small town. What she left unsaid, but implied, was that Truman became president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died less than three months into his fourth term.
But if Palin’s style is the opposite of Clinton’s, it does have a lot in common with George W. Bush’s—and not just in her unblinking confidence, mangled syntax and expressions of evangelical faith. It’s contempt for what Palin calls the “elites”—not wealthy financiers, but people who write and think for a living. Still, there is a difference. Bush used his adopted Texan twang and frat boy mannerisms to distance himself from his true biography as the Ivy League-educated scion of a wealthy East Coast political dynasty. Palin was born to a school secretary and a science teacher and attended six colleges in five years before finally earning her degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Idaho. In some ways, Palin really is the character Bush was just playing.
The Palin Effect, if it could be called that, is not about coming from a small town or enjoying the shooting of moose. It’s that she sets up a tension between gut and reason, faith and knowledge, street smarts and book smarts, and challenges people to take sides. “I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear,” she boasted in the VP debate. Indeed, appearing too professorial, condescending or pointy-headed is a liability in politics—just ask Al Gore. Even former professor and author Barack Obama likes to drop his G’s at rallies. But Palin’s anti-intellectualism has scaled new heights. “The founders of the American republic were hoping that Americans would agree to be governed not by an inherited aristocracy but an aristocracy of merit. If you told James Madison [about Palin], I think it would bring the man to tears, frankly,” says Harrison.
It could be the reason why the conservatives who’ve written most critically about Palin—the ones whom McCain has derided as the “Georgetown cocktail party person who, quote, calls himself a conservative who doesn’t like Sarah”—also have been among the most cerebral. Syndicated columnist George Will has called her “a person of negligible experience.” Former Bush speech writer David Frum called the pick “cynical.” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that Palin “seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.”
And here may lie the crux of why Palin gets so deeply under her critics’ skin—in a way that McCain does not, and that any number of Republican women, from senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Elizabeth Dole to businesswoman Carly Fiorina or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, if put on the ticket, would not. “She comes across as defiantly in love with a kind of culture and way of being that is so antithetical to everything we have always looked for in a politician,” says J. David Miller, a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Mason University in Virginia. “Even when a politician is conservative, those of us who are liberal can say at least he is respectful of intellect, reads, or arrives at views through a process of analysis.” But Palin justifies her arguments, her very presence on the ticket, not just by her experience as mayor of tiny Wasilla, or governor of sparsely populated Alaska, but because, as she said in the debate, “It was my connection to the heartland of America.”
She makes the case that proximity—whether to Russia or to Middle America—really matters, and is a more legitimate source of knowledge or experience than reading or studying or legislating on national issues in the U.S. Senate. “Her ideas seem to come to her through an inculcation or osmosis,” says Miller. “I think it’s almost like a tribal sensibility—this is who my people are.” To her supporters, that’s a big part of the appeal. “She not only mirrors these folks, with her folksy phrases and ordinary pastimes, but also reassures them that they are okay—lovable and therefore safe—because she so clearly seems to love herself,” Miller adds.
Palin seems to relish the effect she has on her critics, especially feminists. At a campaign rally in Carson, Calif., on Oct. 4, she took aim at them, telling the cheering crowd about a quotation from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. “Now she said it, I didn’t. She said, ‘There’s a place in hell reserved for women who don’t support other women.’ ” Palin said she read it on her Starbucks mocha cup. (The actual quote said “help” other women.)
But for some Palin-haters, Obama’s rise in the polls has tempered their emotions about the candidate. “It’s October,
it’s a very different world. The stock market is down. I think Sarah Palin is basically irrelevant on the current issues,” says history professor Wiener, who says he is no longer obsessed. But Palin, who has stepped into a new, more aggressive role, has no intention of becoming irrelevant. “For me, the heels are on, the gloves are off,” she told Republican donors on Monday in Naples during a trip through Florida, one of the many swing states where McCain finds himself trailing since the financial crisis began. And at the rally in Carson, she said that Obama is “palling around with terrorists,” referring to Obama’s association with a co-founder of the 1960s-era Weather Underground, and citing as proof a New York Times article—despite its conclusion that “the two men do not appear to have been close.”
At another Florida rally on Monday, she stepped it up, telling supporters that Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist!” She told conservative columnist William Kristol that she’d like to talk more about Obama’s controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, despite McCain’s statements that he would not raise the issue. And her constant swipes at the “media elites” are raising the temperature even more. At a rally in Clearwater, Fla., her supporters hurled obscenities at reporters. One even shouted a racial epithet at an African-American television soundman, and told him, “Sit down, boy.”
It was not something that came directly from Palin. But if these are the sorts of attitudes she can incite, she will remain the stuff of nightmares—and perhaps not just for Democrats.