For now, the great Republican joke of 2008 has decided to step off the public stage. At least that’s how I read this weekend’s announcement from Alaska governor and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. What will late-night comedians do? Will Tina Fey still have a job?
Of course, some time ago, I concluded that Wasilla and the Palin family were essentially a comedian’s Full Employment Act, the trailer park that keeps on giving. From unwed, teenage motherhood and OxyContin dealers to televised turkey grinding and pointless belly-aching about the humor of late-night talk show hosts, the Palin clan managed to keep themselves in the headlines. But suddenly, the heady mix of media attention, mass adulation, criticism and biting humor seems to be too much for the one-term governor.
How should we understand this unexpected declaration? One possibility, of course, is that she really means it. This is it for Sarah. Perhaps electoral politics at the national level is a test of endurance, too brutal and unrelenting for Palin and her family. “Politics as usual” was just too nasty.
But, it seems unlikely that she has actually withdrawn permanently from politics. Even given her rambling remarks and misattribution of a quote to Gen. Douglas MacArthur; it was actually Maj. General Oliver Prince Smith who said, “We’re not retreating; we are advancing in another direction.”
Each new spin on why she made the announcement only digs a deeper hole. The whole episode called to my mind Walt Kelly’s immortal Pogo, who liked to say, “The further we go, the behinder we get.” Or better still, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
Perhaps, however, what really happened is that Palin finally got the memo. No doubt many Republican consultants and advisers have been recommending that she step out of the public eye for a while. She should, as a phrase might have it, “pull a Nixon.” Declare yourself out of politics in order to get some private time to re-invent yourself.
Doing so is probably especially important for Palin. While she clearly lights up the most conservative segments of the Republican base, she has shown no capacity whatsoever to reach beyond this loyal but narrow following. If her long-term ambition is to make a serious run for the presidency in 2012, then Palin needs to take meaningful steps to shore up the obvious deficiencies seen during the general election campaign and over the subsequent months.
Perhaps most central to remaking her image is the perception that she is an intellectual lightweight, unsuited to occupy the White House. Exhibit A in this case against Palin remains her disastrous Katie Couric interview. A recent Vanity Fair exposé only amplified this problem, revealing the extent to which even a number of high-level Republican advisers feel Palin is fundamentally out of her depth on the national stage.
Of course, Nixon called timeout after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election. He did not walk away from a sizable chunk of an elected term of office. After Palin’s announcement, John Weaver, a high-ranking adviser to Sen. John McCain, told the New York Times, that she “falls further into the weirdness category; people don’t like a quitter.”
Palin’s sudden departure may signal, however, something deeper about her character. If Todd S. Purdum’s treatment of Palin in Vanity Fair is correct, then this impetuous resignation was not unpredictable. It is just another vainglorious act by a former beauty queen, someone who genuinely seems to believe that a pretty-girl smile, the wink of an eye and a kick from a pair of Naughty Monkey high heels should be enough to make any problem go away.
It was a calamitous bit of bad judgment on Sen. McCain’s part that first elevated Palin to prominence on the national scene. What troubles me most now is that there is no sign that she is serious about becoming better informed, or a more serious and reflective thinker. Instead, it seems she will line her wallet with major book-deal cash, surround herself with loyal sycophants and set about solidifying her grip on the Republican right-wing, evangelical base. This will be enough, sadly, to keep her on a national stage where she clearly has never really belonged.
The only pleasure I can take from this is the certainty that Republicans will remain confused and divided and, most of all, Tina Fey will still have plenty of work to do.
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Sociology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University.