Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sarah Palin: Any Kind of Genius? Yes, One Kind of One

Media Maven

The strategic genius of Sarah Palin.

Michelle Cottle July 13, 2010 | 12:00 am

Like most great women of mystery, Sarah Palin is at once everywhere and nowhere. On any given evening, you might see the former Alaska governor-turned-conservative-icon on Fox News, chatting up like-minded travelers about the political buzz du jour.

Her byline pops up now and again in the opinion pages (supporting McCain, bashing enviros). She periodically hits the campaign trail with favored candidates. She is a prolific and passionate tweeter. Her Facebook page overflows with thoughts on global events both past (DDay, Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech) and present (Israel, border security, the need to drill, baby, drill); news of upcoming appearances (a rally at the Lincoln Memorial with Glenn Beck, a possible U.K. jaunt to meet Margaret Thatcher); the latest media atrocities committed against her; and her rolling endorsements of “commonsense conservative” candidates who tickle her fancy. And, any day now, filming is scheduled to start on the docu-travelogue series in which Palin will “bring the wonder and majesty of Alaska” to TLC viewers.

In the midst of this aggressive visibility, however, Palin keeps a tight grip on her time in the public eye. She rarely sits down with non-conservative interviewers and eschews mix-’em-up formats pitting her viewpoint against that of a more liberal counterpart. More fascinating, she is cautious about her interaction with fellow Republicans. Some of her Facebook endorsements this election cycle have come with telephone outreach to the chosen candidate or, for the fortunate few, even joint appearances. Others come suddenly, with no direct communication at all. More than one campaign learned of Palin’s endorsement only when some staffer or supporter stumbled across it online. There is, for instance, an entertaining video clip of Iowa gubernatorial hopeful Terry Branstad being handed news of his anointment during a June 3 campaign event. Blindsided, Branstad chuckles awkwardly and announces, with evident amazement, “I never expected this! Sarah Palin just endorsed us on Facebook.” (It’s hard to tell from audience members’ explosive laughter whether they are more delighted or appalled for Branstad, a moderate Republican whose endorsement by Palin drew howls of protest from her conservative followers.)

For Republican pols actively angling for Palin’s magic touch, simply attracting the attention of Palinland can prove challenging. There have been smirking media accounts of various Republican primary combatants scrambling for a Palin endorsement or appearance. Before he became infamous for serially exaggerating his résumé Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk suffered the indignity of having his make-her-love-me-please memo to Palin pal Fred Malek leaked to the media. Among Republican strategists, there has arisen grumbling about the difficulties in connecting with her people. “Nobody even knows how to get ahold of her. No one knows who to call,” says one. Some campaigns grew so desperate, they took to e-mailing Palin’s Facebook page. (Meanwhile, even among those considered close to Palin, there is some confusion as to who, besides Sarah and Todd, are in-the-know, central players in Palinland.) Grumps the strategist, “The entire Palin organization seems to be the woman, a massive Facebook page, and a ton of TV cameras.”

It’s an unconventional media strategy, to be sure, and not without its drawbacks— namely, bitter party operatives. (“This means that you can’t plan anything!” says the strategist.) Yet it’s hard to deny that Palin’s p.r. approach has not only succeeded but succeeded brilliantly. How? The most obvious element at work here is that Palin operates not as a politician but as a celebrity. “Most politicians can’t get on the cover of People,” sighs another GOP campaign veteran. “She’s on the cover almost every week.” The rules are different for celebrities: Palin’s megawattage enables her to command attention for every word and gesture, even as she largely stiff-arms The New York Times and “Meet the Press.” Similarly, candidates desperate for her endorsement are unlikely to (publicly) whine about whatever attention she dribbles their way, no matter how arbitrary or last-minute.

Of course, unlike other categories of the rich and famous, political celebs (especially populist firebrands) cannot risk being seen as remote or out of touch. But here’s where Palin’s embrace of new media saves the day. Her perky, quirky tweets and chatty Facebook items make her fans feel as though they have a direct line to her—despite the oft-voiced assumption that Palin (like so many pols) does not write most (if any) of her own Facebook posts. Such is the beauty of social networking: It allows a public figure to avoid direct interaction with the public while promoting the illusion of personal connection and involvement.

This model makes perfect sense for Palin if she plans to continue as a media personality. It’s unlikely she’d change her m.o., however, even if she decided to run for office again one day. It suits her core strengths—passion, pithiness, and a mind-boggling magnetism—and, let’s face it, it’s so much easier than the conventional model. Already, even as Palin eagerly collects scalps in the midterm races (a key step toward running for future office), she is skipping much of the messier, schmoozier work of building relationships with other campaigns (traditionally also a key step), opting instead to bless many from the safe, antiseptic distance of Facebook.

Palin would not be the first celebrity candidate to attempt an above-the-fray strategy. In the hunt for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, ex-senator and erstwhile actor Fred Thompson briefly entertained dreams of running a different kind of campaign, in which his fame and willingness to rely on the Web would spare him from trudging through all those snow banks in Iowa and New Hampshire. A key part of his plan was to speak directly to voters via blog posts and other new-media tools, rather than letting himself be filtered by all the usual gatekeepers. But Thompson, while plenty well-known and delightfully avuncular, lacked the fire in the belly to make it more than a couple of feet off the starting block.

Palin, by contrast, appears to still harbor plenty of ambition, or at least scores to settle. She also enjoys a media landscape far more “democratized” than what Thompson faced just a few years ago—who knows what Team Fred could have done with the Twitter mania that’s swept politics recently?—not to mention a star quality many Hollywood A-listers would kill for. With her new-media savvy and old-fashioned charisma, Palin has managed to merge Norma Desmond (“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”) with Greta Garbo (“I want to be alone”) to become one of the most irresistible spectacles on the public stage. Any political strategist who orchestrated such brilliant success via such unconventional means would instantly be dubbed the p.r. genius of our time. But, as far as we know, there is no crack communications team charting Palin’s course. At some point, even Palin haters may have to face the possibility that the p.r. genius is Sarah herself.


Me:

Palin is, Cottle has convinced me, an insubstantial media genius.

And she cannot simply be assimilated to celebrities, to whom she can be likened though, who garner tremendous attention while running on the emptiness of themselves. There is, certainly, more than that to her.

In the beginning, I defended Palin as someone with sufficient smarts to one day be a formidable political presence, even if one with whom I disagreed. That defence took it as an article of faith that the substance would fall into place for her, would be acquired by her, by whatever study or osmosis worked.

But then on seeing more and more of her--even at friendly settings, say the various Foxholes--her inarticulate banality, her unanalytic, know nothing, stream of consciousness warbling of talking points eroded any assumption of latent political competence I had held out for her.

Cottle's spritely little essay implicitly, as I read it, grants Palin’s lack of substance but makes the case for the public relations "there there", in her. So, unlike a few, of the overall few, on this thread, I think it's a mistake to ignore her or disdain and write off her importance. What I think needs to be done is to understand her importance for what it is--the relative triumph of, and danger of, hustling jive, even brilliant jive as judged by certain criteria--after all it's arguable she fought Biden to a draw in their debate—over depth and thoughtfulness.

It's not known whether she intends to run in 2012—I'd guess that Palin is just as much in the dark about that as the rest of us. As long as she remains out of the political running she'll stay for a while what she is--a rather spectacularly successful media phenomenon. But should she run, then the real issue, at least as I see it, will emerge: whether her forms of self presentation, the embodiment of brilliant public relations, special effects, so to speak, masking insubstantiality, ultimately can win over substance.

flynner:

I wouldn't make much of a draw in the vice-presidential debate. American TV political debates are like soccer, the most likely outcome is a nil-nil draw. If they were allowed to use their hands and throw the ball down-field (i.e. address each other directly), she would have been toast. Could you imagine how much fun it would have been for Team Obama to write the questions Palin had to answer? "Governor Palin, name the three branches of government."

I wouldn't make much of a draw in the vice-presidential debate. American TV political debates are like soccer, the most likely outcome is a nil-nil draw. If they were allowed to use their hands and throw the ball down-field (i.e. address each other directly), she would have been toast. Could you imagine how much fun it would have been for Team Obama to write the questions Palin had to answer? "Governor Palin, name the three branches of government."

tgatz85:

There is no strategic genius here. Palin is average in just about every way but her looks and her ideology. The magic of average is that people at or below your level can sympathize with you especially when they think they are doing it against a common enemy. Palin isn't a strategical genius, she just got lucky and has been running herself ragged to identify herself with the Tea Party, which will never make any real gains anyway. Even in the most extreme case (extreme to the point of being laughable) of Sarah being elected president with Tea Party support, we might as well pack up and leave right? In short, if Sarah Palin's "Genius" gets her anywhere beyond celebrity fad of the moment it'

There is no strategic genius here. Palin is average in just about every way but her looks and her ideology. The magic of average is that people at or below your level can sympathize with you especially when they think they are doing it against a common enemy. Palin isn't a strategical genius, she just got lucky and has been running herself ragged to identify herself with the Tea Party, which will never make any real gains anyway. Even in the most extreme case (extreme to the point of being laughable) of Sarah being elected president with Tea Party support, we might as well pack up and leave right? In short, if Sarah Palin's "Genius" gets her anywhere beyond celebrity fad of the moment it'll be a miracle so democrats might as well worry about the things that matter, and leave the GOP, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sarah Palin to self destruct under the ridiculousness of their unsupported claims.

4 comments:

  1. "Sarah's long-term plans are anybody's guess. Anyone who thinks she won't run for president because she's making too much money on the celebrity circuit is missing a big point. You make money as a presidential candidate, too. If you win, you're president. If you lose, you're rich.

    And don’t tell her she can’t do it. If you do, she’s just gonna get feistier and cuter. Next thing you know she’ll be a dadgum lioness givin’ heck to those media hyenas, just the way they can’t stand it.

    Look outcha!"

    Kathleen Parker said that.

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  2. I need to know what anybody sees in her as matter of political competence.

    I've come around to the the David Frum view of her.

    Where's the meat of something solid she's written or said besides all the animal metaphors that isn't a semi digested talking point or sloganeering cliche.

    See for example http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jan/14/sarah-and-her-tribe/. I thought the analysis of the intellectual coherence of her speech mirrors my reaction to her every time I see her on soft ball television. I have not bias against her, no reason not to assess her as objectively as I can. But I've come to think that there is no steak there for all her undeniable sizzle.

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  3. "Intellectual coherence" should be "intellectual incoherence."

    ReplyDelete
  4. 這個時代,不缺乏感傷,但缺乏反思~~希望能多看到值得思考的文章!............................................................

    ReplyDelete