My great weakness as a political analyst, and the reason I am often wrong in my predictions, is that I try to think strategically. I keep forgetting that many of the prominent people in politics are divas who think that the normal rules of politics don’t apply to them and thus do things that you never anticipate. Just look at the recent list: David Vitter, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, and Larry Craig.
And of course we have Sarah Palin, the biggest diva of them all. Like everyone else, I was dumbfounded by Sarah Palin’s statement on Friday that she was resigning as governor of Alaska. You can read the text of her speech here but you have to view the full 18 minutes of it to fully appreciate what an extraordinary performance it was. It was a classic Palin production: rambling and incoherent, uplifting phrases strung together without much thought to continuity, putting her family in the spotlight and yet whining about the way she and her family have been treated, repeatedly praising her own doggone maverickiness, and pandering to Alaskans by the bucketful.
What the speech notably lacked was a plausible reason for resigning. Basically she said that she had first decided to not run for re-election. She vaguely implied, in another bit of blatant pandering, that her visit to wounded soldiers in Kosovo and Landstuhl were factors in this decision. She then went on to castigate all lame-duck office holders as wasters of taxpayers’ time and money by going on junkets and the like. But she was not going to do that, no sirree, because that would be ‘politics as usual’.
You would think then that what she would do to defy that stereotype is put her head down and do a boffo job as governor in the second half of her term and accumulate a list of strong accomplishments, by golly. But no, she seems to think that the only way to avoid being a typically profligate lame duck is to not be in office at all, a kind of “stop me before I hurt myself” attitude that is mystifying. She said, astoundingly, that it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars for her to continue as governor, the job they actually voted her to do. Then, after a long and confusing basketball metaphor about how good point guards deal with difficult situations, gosh darn it, she quit, which is not what champion athletes do.
While most of her speech left me baffled, there was one thing that made me wince. She made an odd comment at the end about how much we can learn from children with Downs Syndrome and said that, “the world needs more “Trigs”, not fewer”. I have known children who have Downs. They are very affectionate and sweet and their families love them. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that having Downs is a good thing, to be encouraged, simply because it teaches the rest of us important life lessons. Once again, it seemed like an attempt at using her family as props for her own self-aggrandizement, to show that she was better than anyone else.
So what is going on? Why did she resign? The most charitable explanation that I can think of is that after the heady days of running for vice-president, with the private jets, the fancy hotels, a large staff to cater to her needs, shopping sprees paid for by others, permanently on national media, and so on, the daily grind of retail politics involved in running a small state was just too boring for her.
Or maybe she was clearing her desk so that she could run full-time for president in 2012. Many commentators (even those who are among her strongest supporters) think that if she thought that this was a good strategy, then she has made a serious miscalculation because this will be taken as evidence that she cannot stick to anything for long. Any doubts that this was a terribly bad move were dismissed when Bill Kristol (Motto: “Unapologetically Wrong About Every Thing”) thought that this could be good for her and that she might be “crazy like a fox”.
There were those who thought that she could be a credible candidate in 2012 if she worked on being a good governor and hunkered down and studied up on the issues that she seemed to be so ignorant of. Clearly she has not made any attempt to get up to speed on any of the big issues. Frankly I could never see that happening. As I said back in December, such habits and interests are formed early in one’s life and has been noticeably absent in hers. I think she believes that a breezy confidence in her gut instincts, her strong convictions on some social issues, and her looks were enough to run on, and that winks and smiles and a down-home speaking style of platitudes and clichés and banalities would make voters overlook the lack of substance, you betcha.
The timing of her sudden announcement was also weird. Palin clearly is narcissistic and loves media attention. I would have thought that she would have set up a big press event and had all the national media covering her resignation so that she went out in a blaze of publicity. But among political professionals, Friday evening is the time when it is believed to be best to dump any news that you don’t want people to pay attention to. The Friday evening before the July 4th weekend would be an even bigger news black hole. But since she wasn’t delivering news that needed to be buried, the timing was puzzling.
Some have speculated that she had to get out quickly before some big scandal breaks but so far nothing has emerged. Either she acted purely on impulse or she decided to take advantage of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report going on vacation on July 3 and not returning until July 13, hoping that other events would intervene and thus she would avoid being skewered by them when they return.
Furthermore, she made the announcement in her back yard before a single local TV camera crew and microphone and, if you watch the last few seconds, the camera pans over the crowd and you realize that there are only about ten people (including some children) there for the big show. It looked like she rounded up a few neighbors for her announcement. The whole thing was clearly rushed. Even her father-in-law was taken by surprise.
As I watched her performance, it struck me once again that she might be suffering from some kind of slight mental instability that I am not competent to diagnose, perhaps some kind of attention deficit disorder or even a little bipolarity. There has always been a slightly manic quality to her behavior, a curious adolescent mixture of chipper, upbeat, self-aggrandizement mixed in with maudlin self-pity. The character of Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard comes to mind.
Others suggest that she is smart enough to realize that she was never going to win higher office and decided to start right now to make money by exploiting her fame before it waned, by going the full-time celebrity route, writing books, giving speeches, and maybe having her own TV show.
One thing that Palin was right about in her speech was in her repeated assertions she does not practice ‘politics as usual’. I have never seen anything like her brand of political weirdness.
I never believed that Palin had even the ghost of a chance of winning even the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. However I was hoping that she would make a run for the White House. It would have provided endless entertainment to see how the other Republican primary candidates would handle her because she has got the politics of victimhood down pat. If criticized for her lack of awareness on the issues, she responds that this is sexist and that women are held to a higher standard. If people point out her lack of experience, she takes this as a slur on the people of Alaska and a denigration of small town values. She hauls her family out as political props when it suits her and then whines when anything is said about them. She loves being in the media spotlight and then complains about her treatment by them.
The Democrats knew that the people who liked her would never vote for them anyway, so her tactics did not really matter to them and all they needed to do was ignore her. She actually helped them by alienating independents. But the other Republican candidates would have been competing with her for the same base of voters, and dealing with her prickliness would have been a minefield for them. You can bet that they are heaving a huge sigh of relief and hoping she really is out of politics for good.
So come back Sarah! I miss you already. Elections won’t be nearly as much fun without you. You betcha.
POST SCRIPT: Al Franken
I have been amused at how some political commentators are treating Al Franken, now declared as having been elected as Minnesota’s senator, as an intellectual lightweight because he used to be a comedian. In reality, good comedians, especially those who have done stand-up, are pretty sharp. They have to be quick-witted and knowledgeable because they write much of their own material (at least early in their careers) and they have lots of experience putting down hecklers. They also know how to go for the jugular and have killer timing. Jon Stewart has writers for his show for the set pieces, but his background as a standup is what makes him a good interviewer where, if he wants, he can easily make the other person look foolish. Ask Jim Cramer.
Here is a clip where Al Franken and Ann Coulter respond to the question of which character from the past they would have liked to have been. Note how Franken paces his response to Coulter, using pauses to think through his response to get maximum laughs.
You cross a stand-up comic at your peril.