From Memorial Day weekend through today and beyond, Sarah Palin is dominating the TV news cycle. She’s doing it by providing garishly irresistible visuals – footage of her big bus, its sides decorated with images of the Constitution, the phrase “One Nation,” and a plug for her website sarahpac.com – and by providing no interviews with the “lamestream media”… except for Fox News.
More visuals: Eating pizza with Donald Trump! Palin and family members riding on motorcycles during the Rolling Thunder Memorial Day parade! (A rare quote from her: “I love that smell of the emissions!”)
Broadcast and cable news outlets have gone into a frenzy over all this, while trying to tamp down that frenzy by smothering it in the pseudo-respectability of asking anyone who’ll appear on camera, Do you think this means Palin will run for President? (At the very moment I am writing this post, CNN is conducting an interview with three pundits over an onscreen message that reads, “Palin and Trump meet over pizza in New York. What message does this send Republican Establishment?” Um, order in?)
On Tuesday night, Jon Stewart satirized the coverage of Palin in a segment he dubbed “Driving Miss Crazy.” In the hour preceding Stewart’s show, Palin gave an exclusive interview to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren in which Palin said she’d be “doin’ a lot of OTRs – off the records [interviews],” and asserted that if reporters want to locate where the bus is headed, “the media can find out where we’re goin’ next if they do their investigative work.” (She also characterized Medicare as a big “Ponzi scheme,” pronouncing the word “Ponzi” to rhyme with “Banzai!,” which I guess is only appropriate given the military-charge metaphors she favors.)
What has the political press so perplexed (whaaat? She doesn’t want our free air time, our endless print and blog space?) is actually easy for you and me in the pop-culture universe to understand: Palin isn’t behaving like a politician, she’s behaving like a diva pop star, some combination of Angelina Jolie (so tough in that leather motorcycle jacket! All those kids!) and Lady Gaga (so… gaga!).
Like a show-biz star, Palin only increases her pervasiveness and allure by declining to be interviewed. Into that void comes a cascade of rumor, speculation, and analysis that is both serious and satiric. Which in turn gives Palin far more visibility than any other Republican trying to get his or her message out about the budget, Medicare, or any subject more important than the Palin clan’s Partridge Family-style work/vacation bus travel.
In breaking (pizza-dough) bread with Trump, Palin could not be sending out a clearer message: She's the latest celebrity apprentice, aligning herself with pop-culture crossovers like Trump (the businessman-turned-star) rather than politician crossovers (that old Arnold Schwarzenegger model, the star-turned-politician, is way out of favor now). Instead of interpreting Palin through the image she has created for herself, which is how the entertainment press grapples with quote-stingy movie and music stars, the political press is still terribly, drearily earnest and literal-minded.
On MSNBC's Morning Joe this morning, conservative Joe Scarborough's voice nearly cracked with strained emotion as he lamented, "There has to be a mainstream candidate” for the Republicans. Scarborough clings to the idea that nobody will vote for Palin to be the party’s nominee because he thinks she won’t be able to convince voters she’s “not going to blow up the economy or the world.”
Silly Joe: Most voters now don’t care about those sorts of policy questions. More and more, forward-thinking, media-savvy politicians like Palin – and the one area in which she’d probably welcome the label “progressive” is in describing her campaign methods – understand that “mainstream” means less than nothing any more. It doesn’t connote wisdom and comfort; it implies stodginess and old thinking.
Interviews with the networks? Who cares, when you have a movie about yourself coming out? Later this month, The Undefeated will premiere in Iowa (take that, New Yawk and El Lay!). It will, by all reports, chronicle Palin’s rise and rise. Much like I’m curious to see X-Men: First Class to find out whether the franchise can be invigorated by reinterpreting its history, so I’m curious to see The Undefeated (also the title of a 1969 John Wayne movie: coincidence?) (answer: yes; only better one would be if she’d named her bus The Green Berets) to find out whether Palin can reinvigorate her career by reinterpreting her political life as a triumph of the will to win.
And please take note, future documentary filmmakers working with a small budget: Palin reminded Greta Van Susteren that, instead of using fresh quotes from Palin, the film will use her voice from the audiobook of her print thingy Going Rogue.
See? She’s a star, always re-creating herself. Palin must be sitting in the back of that bus right now, chortling and thinking, “Where’s that Katie Couric now?”