I wasn’t asked to write the foreword to Sarah Palin’s forthcoming memoir, but that didn’t stop me.
Maverick. Iconoclast. Renegade. These are all words Sarah Palin would have trouble spelling correctly.
The political phenomenon from Wasilla, Alaska, burst onto the national stage in the fall of 2008. She was unlike anything Americans had ever seen before, unless they’d seen Tina Fey, which most of them had.
Within minutes of Palin’s emergence, we knew she was young and attractive. Within hours, we knew she could hunt down a wolf using only her wits, her instincts and a very fast plane with sophisticated radar and people shouting and pointing and saying, “There, down there, shoot that!” Within days, we’d discovered she has a rigid belief in abstinence-only sex education and, inevitably, an unwed pregnant teenage daughter. An enraptured nation couldn’t help but wonder: what will we discover next about Sarah Palin? Does she have a yokel half-sister making moonshine in the woods of Tennessee? Is she a witch?
Palin’s list of accomplishments is staggering to behold. At 20, she won the Miss Wasilla pageant, outshining several truck drivers and a precocious muskox. At 42, she was elected governor of a whole entire state. And at 44, she became the first American ever to run for high office while thinking that Meet the Press is the one where Robert De Niro plays Ben Stiller’s father-in-law. Plus there was that time she couldn’t name a single newspaper or magazine in the presence of Katie Couric. That was pretty staggering.
The reaction to Palin’s candidacy was a quintessential American moment. Conservatives were motivated. Ultra-conservatives were ultra-motivated. Rush Limbaugh wet himself. Within hours, savvy entrepreneurs had begun cranking out merchandise to capitalize on her popularity—T-shirts, tote bags, even thongs emblazoned with the Palin name. Overnight, the market dried up for Mitt Romney-branded male girdles. Republicans had fallen in line. And they’d fallen in love.
Palin quickly went to work building up her bona fides on global affairs. Yes, she identified Africa as a country—not a continent—but this was just a test, America. She was testing you! (Congratulations, you passed.) She also touted her “foreign policy experience” as commander of the Alaskan National Guard. The implications were clear: under a McCain-Palin administration, America would stand ready to fend off any and all attacks by a platoon of herring. Not content to rest on such impressive credentials, Palin would go on to demonstrate a vague awareness of several countries she could not see from her front porch.
American politics is a cutthroat business in which the parties spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising and, in Sarah Palin’s case, skirts.
But Washington was stunned by the emergence of this feisty outsider from the North. For decades, political leaders had seduced voters with their fancy talk and pretty words. But Palin refused to be a slave to oratory or grandiloquence or basic syntax. She liberated the English language from the rigid orthodoxy of meaning, because in America even words should have freedom—the freedom to appear wherever they’d like, almost as if emerging by chance or random draw.
“My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur,” Palin once said, “and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent.” Words truer been have spoken never.
Though she’s been on the national stage for only a brief time, Sarah Palin has taught us so much. She’s taught us that letting men marry other men would make God cry. She’s taught us that it’s possible for a presidential candidate to spend less time vetting his vice-presidential pick than most people spend vetting the breakfast menu at Denny’s. Most recently, she taught us that the best way to prepare for a tricky job like being president is to quit the much less tricky job you couldn’t be bothered to finish because, wait, what?
Thanks to her, we also know that there’s a “media filter” out there that affects a candidate’s ability to communicate with voters—though in Palin’s case it’s still not clear how that filter kept catching all her smart words and letting through only the dumb ones.
In less than a year, Alaska’s Sarah Palin has defined herself as a role model for the modern American female. She’s made it okay for women to put their desires first—to be someone so pathologically bent on career advancement that you would thrust your own pregnant daughter into the spotlight to enjoy a third trimester of being gawked at by strangers, judged by the media and caressed repeatedly on the belly and called Rosemary by Dick Cheney.
And now, scant months after resigning as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has finished a book. I believe it was a Nancy Drew.