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Why Sarah Palin doesn’t get what she deserves

OK, so Sarah Palin probably isn’t running for president. She may have told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that she was “tempted” because she was “wondering who the heck is going to be out there with a servant’s heart willing to serve the American people.” But evidence suggests there’s not a lot to wonder about when it comes to her candidacy.

Palin’s approval ratings have never been lower. A CNN poll showed that among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, only 12% wanted Pain as the nominee. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 17% of GOP voters and 28% of Republican-leaning independents put her in the “strongly unfavorable” category. Even Palin’s longtime champion, William Kristol, has said she’s “unlikely to be” and “probably shouldn’t be” the GOP nominee.

In other words, Palin-a-phobes, the danger is receding. The apocalypse may be averted. You might not need to move to Canada after all.

But even as she edges off the political stage, Palin still has the power not just to fascinate but to obsess us. The woman could probably disappear from public life, retreating to a yurt somewhere off the grid for a second career as a taxidermist, and still get tapped constantly as a cultural and political touchstone.

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Many who dislike her would prefer that tapping to sound more like hammering. “You should write about her more often,” friends and readers tell me on a weekly basis. They don’t mean in a Hallmark card kind of way.

“Why don’t you take the gloves off?” they ask. “Admit the obvious: Palin’s rocket ride to political fame says less about her talents than it does about the staggering cynicism of contemporary media and politics. Why don’t you point out that the cohort that bemoans the demise of the nuclear family and the debased, disaffected nature of popular culture is the same one that embraces a woman who exploits her daughter’s out-of-wedlock motherhood, communicates chiefly through Facebook and Twitter and puts herself on reality TV?”

I’d love to say these things. I’d love to rent billboards in all 50 states and splash these things across them. Instead, I’ve bent over backward to be levelheaded about Palin’s whole gestalt. I’ve made it clear I don’t think highly of her politics, but I also allowed that her speech at the 2008 GOP convention was actually quite good, and I recognized that her version of the struggle to “have it all” had tremendous appeal (at least back when she seemed to be genuinely struggling). I even defended her right to call herself a feminist: As long as progressive-minded women lack the guts to claim the term for themselves, it is effectively up for grabs.

I meant it all. Palin has gumption, and for the record, I think she was the victim not only of sexism but ugly classism too. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have gone after her harder on many fronts. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to come across as a mean-spirited smarty-pants (I know, many of you think I did anyway; all I can say is that you should have seen the first drafts.)

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The funny (and sad) thing about that is that I had no such hang-ups when I wrote about the rest of the players in the 2008 election. Why? Because everyone knew they could take it.

Palin could take it too, of course. But because the Palin machine ingeniously rebrands any criticism -- the nasty and the evenhanded alike -- as bilious emanations of the “lamestream media” (this being code for liberal elitist, which is code for educated, which in turn is code for a pathetic disconnection from gut, a.k.a. moral, instinct), it’s all but impossible to challenge her without being discredited as a biased and therefore unqualified source.

And that’s not the only reason why we can’t bring ourselves to take the gloves off with Palin. It’s impossible not to feel like we’re punching shamefully below our weight, which everyone knows is against the rules. Palin lacks the intellectual, analytical and rhetorical skills to have a competent discussion about policy or much else. She is handicapped not only by a lack of education, experience and curiosity about the world (wearing a Star of David in Israel doesn’t count), but by a speaking style that often collapses under the weight of disjointed, undiagrammable sentences. She is, in terms of the political arena, easily outclassed.

Joe Biden had to go easy on her during the vice presidential debates so as not to look like the big bad wolf. Among professional journalists (as opposed to foaming-at-the-mouth partisans), there was a clear attempt not to come across like a browbeater.

Some, like CNN’s Campbell Brown, responded elegantly and cleverly, insinuating that the assumption that Palin was a delicate flower who couldn’t handle the press was a form of sexism and infantilization on the part of the McCain campaign. Others, like ABC’s Charlie Gibson and CBS’ Katie Couric, both of whom conducted famously damning interviews with Palin, found themselves attacked as anti-Palin merely for asking a straight question.

Couric in particular made a strenuous effort at “just the facts” reporting. In “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Rebecca Traister’s book about women and the 2008 election, Couric says, “During the course of the interview I made sure I was as nonjudgmental as possible, that I had no facial affect, that I didn’t even cock my head when I didn’t understand what she was saying.”

Even Traister, an unabashed liberal and feminist who writes for the left-leaning online magazine Salon, is evidence of the way thoughtful writers treat Palin as a special-needs case. Traister offers a rigorous dissection of the hypocrisy and incoherence of Palin’s platform and persona, but nowhere in the book does she swat Palin with the grizzly bear-like strength she could have summoned. She doesn’t come close to doing what my friends and readers (and no doubt her friends and readers) want her to do, which is to rip the lady to shreds and move on.

Alas, we cannot. Not only because it would be cheap and lazy and unbecoming, but also because Palin is too well-shielded by her own incompetence. By casting herself as the less privileged, less polished outsider in the fancy school, she fashions the rest of us into playground bullies (ironic, given her predilection for bullying language) who taunt her with big vocabularies and book learning and obsession with nuance. By playing the victim (ironic, given how closely she associates victimhood with liberal whining), Palin forces her critics to choose between the roles of merciless oppressor and guilt-ridden enabler. And since the merciless oppressor part is already played ably by various screamers on blogs, cable TV and Internet comment boards, writers like me have taken the other route, leaning over so far backward to avoid saying the obvious that we sometimes can’t get enough air in our lungs to say much at all.

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That’s why I truly hope Palin continues to fight her temptation to run for president. If there was ever a candidate who brought out the worst in people, who encouraged hollow rejoinders but made honest analysis almost impossible, it is she. Besides, if she did run, I’d have to write about her. And all the yoga in the world wouldn’t keep my spine from eventually breaking from those backbends.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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