Is This the End of Sarah Palin As We Know Her?
Has Sarah Palin gone too far this time? Or is she immune, able to cross any line no matter how sacred?
With every headline-making gaffe or nasty comment Sarah Palin has made over the past few years, pundits and citizens alike have pondered this question, and the answer, until now, is that like the Energizer Bunny, she just keeps going.
Still, it’s worth asking again, in the wake of last weekend's senseless tragedy which puts a new light on her public persona. Palin's cavalier use of violent imagery may not have directly caused the Tucson shooting that left six dead and a dozen wounded--but it seems uglier now. Her endless gambits to rule the news cycle may be grudgingly admired at other times--but when it takes precious time away from mourning those whose lives are lost forever, it has a pathetic, out-of-touch-feel.
The heat on Palin began almost immediately after the horrific Giffords shooting, when social media users, bloggers and journalists by the hundreds made the immediate connection between Giffords’ Arizona district and Palin’s infamous “reload” crosshairs map, which put a target over that district. This map from Palin's camp had bothered onlookers at the time: Giffords herself had warned about it having consequences. So it was natural that the map came back to mind.
More information surfaced about the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, showing that he was not a Tea Party acolyte but a disturbed individual with complex, confused personal and political motives. Nevertheless, a Palin aide made the mistake of declaring that no, the targets on the map were surveyor’s marks, not gun crosshairs. This backtrack came despite the Twitter command to “reload” that initially led Palin’s followers to the map. Such a ridiculous denial, of course, made Palin's staff look all the more culpable, as absurd defensiveness so often does. It was an amateur move, to say the least.
At that point, pundits like Joe Scarborough urged Palin to pledge to tone down her rhetoric--not to apologize, but to demonstrate reflectiveness. On Politico, Jonathan Martin wrote a feature depicting Palin as being at a turning point and needing to choose a decisive path: would she take to politics by presenting vision and authority and centrist appeal, or would she keep stoking the fires and become a talking head?
On the morning of the memorial for the victims of the shooting, the previously silent Palin released an eight-minute video declaring her hatred for war and violence, and then accusing critics of perpetrating a “blood libel” against her -- a phrase that explicitly refers to the cruel anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews taking the blood of Christian children. Mainstream Jewish groups and even right-wing pundits like Jonah Goldberg denounced Palin’s highly inappropriate use of the term “blood libel” to apply to herself and other pundits being chastised for their inflammatory rhetoric. It was a particular faux pas given that several of the victims, including Giffords, are Jewish.
Gravitas, this video did not demonstrate.
The video clip's disturbing qualities encompassed more than the offensive anti-Semitic connotations that Palin probably didn’t even understand. Beyond the awful word choice, the tone of her eight-minute message on a day meant to be devoted to the victims of the attack was jarring and bizarre. Even in the pundit class that has revered Palin for being a spokesperson for a subset of America, there was some serious head-scratching. Palin’s words exposed her strategy for all to see: seize the spotlight and hold on, no matter what the circumstances. Most of the media-savvy population was aware of that strategy. But on a day of grief, it appeared nakedly venal and self-serving rather than full of gumption and can-do. And it raises the inevitable question of what Palin would be without that strategy, whether she stands for anything at all beyond her successful pose as media provocateur.
Moreover, there's something pathetic there, too. Even with mainstream media figures like Howard Kurtz defending her from blame over the shooting, she still chose to make such a tragic day and a traumatic incident about herself. Especially when contrasted with Obama’s speech, which was so magnanimous, gentle and rousing, the queen of folksiness looked remarkably out-of-touch, even narcissistic. Kurtz himself expressed dismay over her reaction just days after taking her critics to task, saying she'd "gone nuclear" with her speech.
Others were less measured in their reactions to her behavior. Representative James Clyburn dismissed her as not having the intellect to comprehend the tragedy. Mark Green in the Huffington Post declared her candidacy, and even perhaps her future as a pundit dead. He wrote:
Because she has not shown any of the experience, intellect, character or temperament to be a serious presidential contender -- and because Republican leaders are not politically stupid -- she has now officially been destroyed as a serious candidate not by the "lamestream" media but by herself. She's her own worst enemy.
Palin is backed into a corner. But it is a corner that can be effective for rallying an increasingly vocal, if marginal base. As William Rivers-Pitt wrote at TruthOut this week, “Before you start spluttering and staggering in an attempt to comprehend the sheer galactic magnitude of this new round of idiocy...stop a second and remember that this is how people like Sarah Palin operate. This is how they get others to follow them. They make themselves out to be victims, and convince their followers that they, too, are victims.”
It’s been effective thus far. Melissa Harris-Perry made a similar point in the Nation weeks ago about Palin’s ability to turn apparent political adversity into a payday. “There is something remarkable and frightening about the depth of her belief in her narrative. Every criticism, every defeat, every attack is just evidence of the virtue of her chosen path,” she wrote of Palin’s persona, so compelling even to those who disagree with her.
It’s doubtful that Sarah Palin’s loyal base will turn on her any time soon. And perhaps she’ll continue to seek office with some success, or the media will keep her around for her point of view as they have with known bigot and anti-Semite Pat Buchanan. (Buchanan has softened his tone to that of an avuncular grump, and even he thought Palin should make a statement that she would tamp down her rhetoric for the sake of her career if nothing else.)
And yet, something feels different now.
We wish tragedies like this weekend's never occurred, and no result of them can ever be seen as a positive. But it's a time-honored truth that adversity brings out a person’s true character, for better or worse. For Sarah Palin, it’s definitely been for worse. She won't disappear, but she may have lost some unearned stature that should have been sloughed off long, long ago.