Notes on the Year: Sarah Palin made masterful use of television to spread her brand

The former governor mixes politics and TV well. Maybe too well..

Sarah Palin.

They have become two of the most incendiary words in the English language, right up there with WikiLeaks and obesity epidemic. “Sarah Palin.” Say it, write it and evoke instant wrath or rapture. In the last year, she’s become not so much a person or even political figure as a brand, a rhetorical franchise of multimedia proportions. Summoning a working mother’s multi-tasking skills, Palin spent 2010 puttin’ it out there on all the platforms, from book publishing to Twitter, but television is her home base. Here’s a woman who quit her job as governor of Alaska to pursue a career in television — first as a commentator for Fox News, then as the star of her own reality series, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”

Here’s a woman straddling two worlds, a frontier filled with rifles, snowmobiles and fishing expeditions, and a meta-media landscape into which she sent her daughter Bristol as a safe-sex emissary and a “Dancing With the Stars” contestant. Here’s a woman who understands that the here and now of American politics is not so much transparency as it is familiarity, that the message is nothing without the medium and you don’t need to be a leader if you can be a symbol.


A lesson she learned from President Obama.

Like Palin, Obama got his big break on TV. In 2004, a virtually unknown candidate for U.S. Senate delivered a rousing speech, and a star was born. He was young, he was handsome, he uttered stirring words with conviction. Sensing his moment, Obama unrolled a personal story that spoke to many — a fatherless boy with roots in two races who projected serene resolution, familial dedication and a Rat Pack-like cool. Americans wanted change; he made change look easy. In four years, he was president.

Since then, Obama has let his own narrative slide, refusing to display the requisite line-in-the-sand moment, to publicly draw himself to full height before offering a withering ultimatum and/or furious take-down. And that, as much as the economy or healthcare, has left many Americans frustrated, as the last election proved.

But if the president is too busy to tend to his own epic, Sarah Palin is not. Having quit her day job, she has nothing but time to star in her own prime-time drama. As with Obama, she speaks to many Americans. She’s a working mother with five kids who has had to deal with trouble at work, an unexpected middle-age pregnancy, a child with Down syndrome, a pregnant teen daughter, and that daughter’s hateful boyfriend and his crazy kin. Plucked from obscurity by the John McCain presidential campaign, she quickly discovered you can’t conquer every mountain through will alone, that desire does not equal ability. But like Obama before her, Palin senses that this is her moment. She knows that the sheer act of not going quietly makes her part of a very American tradition, the regular Joes who rise from defeat to conquer.

Indeed, one can easily imagine a version of Palin being played by Julianna Margulies or Annette Bening in a 10 p.m. network drama. The prickly but plucky politico-mom who brings her hard-won real-life knowledge to Washington. Politics: the television show. An American version of “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard.”

But this isn’t a television show, and Palin isn’t a character. She is a woman determined to seize her moment, and she knows television is the best way to do it. Daughter Bristol may have not won “Dancing With the Stars,” and the ratings for “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” may have dropped dramatically from their premiere high, but Palin is changing, and quickly, the nature of politics and popular culture by unapologetically churning them together right in front of our eyes. And once the two have been properly mixed, it will be virtually impossible to pull them apart.