Newscaster Katie Couric, who inadvertently made Sarah Palin famous, is finally giving Alaska’s former, half-term governor her due for turning American politics into the shitstorm it is today.
But that understates the role of the woman from Wasilla in causing a sea change in American politics.
Instigator would be a better word for Palin. She didn’t foreshadow what was to come; she lit the fire and then fanned the flames.
President Donald Trump might have elevated the chaos to an entirely new level, but he only built on the framework of she-of-the-bluntly-combative-advice “Don’t retreat; reload!”
Those late-night Tweets Trump fires off at almost anyone who dares criticize his performance as president?
Don’t retreat; reload! And attack, attack, attack!
No Dan Quayle
Given where the country is today, it’s interesting to go back to what should have been Palin’s “Dan Quayle” moment when she stumbled and bumbled far worse than a previous vice-presidential candidate who couldn’t spell “potato.”
Quayle never got beyond his belief that the tuber had a “toe” at the end.
Once billed as a future Republican presidential contender, he largely disappeared from national politics after he and running-mate, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, lost the 1992 election to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn.
Many expected much the same to happen to Palin after her largely incoherent comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to a Couric question about the governor’s international diplomatic experience.
“As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska,” Palin said. “It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to our state.”
Palin handlers scrambled to translate, though back home in Alaska those who grew up during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. knew what she was talking about. It had long been Soviet Union and then Russian policy to periodically fly jet fighters or bombers near the U.S. border to test U.S. readiness.
Once foreign aircraft were spotted on radar, fighters from U.S. air bases in Alaska would be sent up to intercept the invaders and turn them home, ie. “we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation.”
None of that had anything to do with being governor of Alaska (the bases are under the control of the U.S. Air Force, not the governor) or with international policy (Russian military activities don’t affect Alaska-Russia trade, which doesn’t amount to much), but Palin’s response wasn’t as totally wigged out as it sounded to most of America.
It was, however, prime fodder for Saturday Night Live and the many comedians who pilloried Palin. She could have rolled over and tossed in the towel, but she didn’t. In what was to become a Palin trademark move and a model for Trump, she aggressively counter-attacked.
The woman who’d won election in Alaska as a uniter abandoned any pretense of that idea and went to war. She was Sean Connery in the Untouchables: “If he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. If he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
Couric and co-author Brian Goldsmith write now that Palin “stoked her supporters’ fears—and won their cheers. At her rallies, Palin said, ‘I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.’ At one, a man shouted ‘Treason’ and Palin said nothing. At another, Palin’s anti-Obama diatribe led a man to yell out, ‘Kill him!’ Palin did not push back against her often-angry crowds. In the strongest echo of today’s Trump rallies, she instead used her speeches to go after the free press (or the “lamestream media”), reserving particular scorn for elite publications.”
(Editor’s note: Trump’s rallies today would actually be an echo of Palin rallies past. The echo comes after the sound, not before. And Palin was the sound.)
“Palin’s supporters then started verbally attacking her traveling press corps, including hurling a racial epithet at an African American journalist,” Couric and Goldsmith continue. “Again, Palin not only refused to lower the temperature; she seemed to bask in that kind of heat.”
Why wouldn’t she? This was war, not politics, and she was feasting on the troops rallying to her cause as the victim warrior. The woman who had long known all the world’s problems could be solved with just a little “common sense” was being attacked by the ruling elite, and she wasn’t going to take it.
Shout “crony capitalism!”
In one sense, it was commendable. Palin was a woman aggressively standing up for herself, and screw you if you didn’t like it.
It was an unsubstantiated charge tied to the fact that Chicago’s Bill Ayers, one of the founders of The Weather Underground, a group militantly opposed to the war in Vietnam, met and supported Chicagoan Barack Obama long after the war ended.
There was never indication they were pals. By 2013, after Obama became president, Ayers argued the president should be put on trial at The Hague for international war crimes. Ayers called Obama’s approval of drone attacks on suspected Islamic militants “terrorism.”
But the palin’ around with terrorist’s accusation played well to a certain segment of America that saw Obama as a supporter of Islam, despite any evidence, and Palin was just getting started.
She took personal offense at losing to Obama and running mate Joe Biden in 2008.
In retrospect, that, too, was an understatement, and her next comments prescient.
“My choice is to take a stand and effect change,” she said in a speech outside her lakeside Alaska home, “not just hit our head against the wall….We know we can effect positive change at this moment in time on another scale and actually make a difference for our priorities.”
After the resignation, as after the Putin-head interview, more than a few people thought Palin’s political career really was over. Once again, she proved them wrong.
She leveraged her VP run and her aggressive support of conservative causes (despite her left-leaning role as Alaska governor) into status as a serious American pol-ebrity and spent the next eight years harassing Obama – say “death panels” – and teasing the conservative, grassroots Tea Party with the possibility she might run for President.
That never happened, but Palin played a pivotal role in sucking the whole country into the vicious, tribal politics of today.
“This is not to say that (Palin running mate, the late Sen. John) McCain or other ‘old school’ politicians were unwilling to go negative or attack their political opponents,” Couric and Goldsmith write. ” They would and did. It’s that there were lines they wouldn’t cross—especially when it came to respecting the legitimacy of their opponents and of journalists. These are lines that politicians like Palin and President Trump won’t even acknowledge. And in a big, diverse democracy, where power is transferred peacefully, where compromise and consensus are required to get things done, those boundaries matter.”
Or at least they matter in peace time. When at war?
There is only one objective in war: to win.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has finally figured that out. She Tuesday channeled her inner Palin on CNN, telling interviewer Christiane Amanpour that Democrats have to stop being civil with Republicans.
“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” Clinton said. “That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
Palin must be proud. When the history of this time is recorded, she will hold a notable place. In the moment, Trump’s image burns far brighter than her’s, but don’t be surprised if, when the history books for this period are written, Sarah Barracuda from Wasilla – the good but not great basketball player, the second runner up as Miss Alaska 1984, the marginal university student, the failed sportscaster and small-town mayor – plays a major role.
“Palin may have stumbled over some issues, but she understood that image and personality now mattered more than policy mastery,” Couric and Goldsmith wrote. “She was all about the base before that strategy became conventional wisdom. She saw the political power in attacking elites. She was right that women in positions of prominence—especially women seeking national office—are treated differently. And unfortunately she knew that delegitimizing the opposing party, and the mainstream media, are effective campaign tactics. It turns out, Sarah Palin could see a lot more than Russia from her house. ”
She fed and led a big, angry tribe that pushed the United States toward the sort of tribalism that tore Europe apart in the mid-Twentieth Century. Love her or loathe her, and there are legions on either side, she changed America.
For much of a decade, when Palin reared her head, the country reacted.