Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Palin: a "little shop of horrors"? Or too deep for our lightweight press corps to grasp?

The Republicans' White Princess, Sarah Palin

I can't say I'm thrilled with Todd Purdum's very critical Vanity Fair profile of Sarah Palin, It Came From Wasilla (Aug 2009 issue; accessed 06/30/09). There's plenty of complaints from McCain campaigns staffers on the record and off, and lots of focus on her personal quirks.

It can easily be a cheap shot to criticize what wasn't said. But sometimes it's not. But it's striking to me that this long article on the Alaska Governor's faults manages not to mention her and her husband's close association with the rightwing extremist, neo-Confederate Alaska Independence Party (AIP) or her deep involvement with the Christian nationalist Third Wave Pentecostal movement. Those aspects of her career are far more important than how many hours some senior staffer spent coaching her for her debate with Joe Biden. Purdum even managed to work Monica Lewinsky into the story! As Bob Somerby says of the press corps and Monica: they can't stop loving her.

Near the beginning of the piece, Purdum frames his story as follows:

What does it say about the nature of modern American politics that a public official who often seems proud of what she does not know is not only accepted but applauded?
This is scarcely a new phenemenon in American politics. And it has been a characteristic of "movement conservative" electioneering on the national level since 1964. It's a valid question but not a novelty of Sarah Palin's admirers.

What does her prominence say about the importance of having (or lacking) a record of achievement in public life?
It's certainly meaningful to ask how well Palin's particular experience had prepared her for national office in 2008, or later. But, again, how is that new? Neither Ronald Reagan nor Arnold Schwarzenegger had governmental experience before they were elected governor of the country's most populous state. Dick Cheney had long experience in the public sector when he ran for Vice President in 2000, and there's no one I can think of who should be kept farther away from public power than that man. How does Palin's situation pose that question any differently than every election does?

Why did so many skilled veterans of the Republican Party - long regarded as the more adroit team in presidential politics - keep loyally working for her election even after they privately realized she was casual about the truth and totally unfit for the vice-presidency?
Again, nothing new. See: Dick Cheney.

I can't help be struck by the Beltway Village tribal assumptions here. First of all, when Village journalists use a phrase like "long regarded as...", they typically mean that the national press corps regard things that way. The national Republican tickets lost the elections of 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2008. So just why would Purdum and his fellow Villagers regard them as "the more adroit team in presidential politics"?

Perhaps most painful, how could John McCain, one of the cagiest survivors in contemporary politics - with a fine appreciation of life’s injustices and absurdities, a love for the sweep of history, and an overdeveloped sense of his own integrity and honor - ever have picked a person whose utter shortage of qualification for her proposed job all but disqualified him for his?
One thing John McCain clearly has accomplished in his political career: he managed to create a remarkable degree of admiration and adoration of himself among the addled crew who make up our national political press. On the face of it, this sounds suspiciously like a complaint from a McCain fanboy that she did their man wrong.

Don't get me wrong, here. I think Palin is a lightweight, and a hardline rightwinger. She would make a terrible President.

But Purdum's hit piece on her strikes me as shabby journalism. I would much rather see a prominent report on Palin look into her political and religious crackpot associates and affiliations and put those into some kind of realistic context. Instead, we get typical press corps reciting of favored scripts. Here is Purdum on the Great Statesman and Maverick again:

McCain has delivered his own postmortem on Palin with the patented brand of winking-and-nodding ironic detachment that he usually reserves for painful political questions, an approach that simultaneously seeks to confess his sin and presume absolution for it. In November, he told Jay Leno he was proud of Palin and did not blame her for his defeat, but by April, when Leno asked him about who was running the Republican Party, McCain declined to mention Palin: “We have, I’m happy to say, a lot of choices out there: Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Huntsman, Romney, Charlie Crist—there's a lot of governors out there who are young and dynamic.” McCain went on, “There’s a lot of good people out there, and I’ve left out somebody’s name and I’m going to hear about it.” When I ask Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime speechwriter and co-author, about that comment, he says simply, “McCain always talks unscripted,” and adds that he has heard “not one word of regret” about Palin ever pass McCain’s lips. McCain’s daughter Meghan, who has continued the blog she began on the campaign last year, has said that Palin is the one topic on which she will have no public comment. [my emphasis]
This kind of silliness is so common among McCain's press fan club that it's easy to overlook it. Purdum quotes McCain saying nothing at all about Palin in an April appearance on Jay Leno and describes his position as "an approach that simultaneously seeks to confess his sin and presume absolution for it." Since he didn't say anything in what Purdum gives of that quote about what Purdum regards as the "sin" in question - picking Palin as his running mate - this doesn't make any kind of sense. But for our star journalists, reciting the preferred press script about the greatness of the Great Maverick takes priority over event he most elemental reasoning or analysis.

There are a couple of especially egregious parts that stand out in a egregious article. Both involve malicious pop psychology:

Some top aides worried about her mental state: was it possible that she was experiencing postpartum depression? (Palin’s youngest son was less than six months old.) Palin maintained only the barest level of civil discourse with Tucker Eskew, the veteran G.O.P. operative who had been made her chief minder. A third party had to shuttle between them to convey even the most rudimentary messages. "She started to hedge her bets," the same McCain friend says. "Frequently, she would be concerned about how something would play in Alaska. What? You’re worried about your backside in Alaska when there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent?" One longtime McCain friend and frequent companion on the trail was heard to refer to Palin as "Little Shop of Horrors."
Giving people anonymity to spew insults is just tacky, but standard in the infotainment writing that our press corps today tries to pass off as journalism. Since presumably most readers will know as much about Tucker Eskew as I do, i.e., nothing beyond what I read in that paragraph, it's impossible to make any judgment about this. I've occasionally encountered people with whom the only really appropriate kind of discourse would be to smack them in the face. It's not hard for me to imagine that a "veteran G.O.P. operative" would be a real prick. Purdum here is just passing on gossip from some coward hiding behind anonymity. But this anonymous label of Palin as a "little shop of horrors" is played up in the article; in fact, at the main article link above it would appear to be the article's title. (The print version shows the title I used there.)

In a similar vein:

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” — and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.” [my emphasis]
This passage led Media Mattters' Eric Boehlert to express rare agreement with neocon pundit and Palin fan Bill Kristol, who is normally right less than the proverbial stopped clock (which is accurate at least twice a day): Hell freezes over: I agree with Bill Kristol's media critique 06/30/09. As Boehlert puts it, "this doesn't pass the smell test." If Purdum's reporting is technically accurate, that he heard this independently from several people, it would most likely be something people were getting from a common source, like a chain e-mail among McCain partisans. Any lay person who actually has looked at the DSM has probably quickly realized that it's difficult to distinguish one clinical condition from another without some more knowledge of their signs and symptoms than a non-medical person is likely to possess.

The DSM-IV is available online. The definition found there for narcissistic personality disorder reads as follows:

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder revolve around a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and sense of entitlement. Often individuals feel overly important and will exaggerate achievements and will accept, and often demand, praise and admiration despite worthy achievements. They may be overwhelmed with fantasies involving unlimited success, power, love, or beauty and feel that they can only be understood by others who are, like them, superior in some aspect of life.

There is a sense of entitlement, of being more deserving than others based solely on their superiority. These symptoms, however, are a result of an underlying sense of inferiority and are often seen as overcompensation. Because of this, they are often envious and even angry of others who have more, receive more respect or attention, or otherwise steal away the spotlight. [my emphasis]
The definition Purdum quotes says, "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy". Did Purdum get his quote directly from some version of the DSM? Or from a copy of some chain e-mail? Or from the mouth of some McCain partisan running down Palin? His paragraph certainly leaves the impression it's a quote from the DSM.

After extensively quoting her enemies on how inept she is as a campaigner, Purdum slips in this paragraph, which suggests a different set of possibilities, based on her actual career rather than backstage gossip from her critics:

Palin’s victory that November was one of the flukiest successes in modern American politics. Rebecca Braun, the publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, a respected nonpartisan newsletter, describes the result as something "far beyond anything you could explain in terms of intellect or training." But Palin had promised three big things, and with the help of Bitney, who became her liaison with the legislature, and Mike Tibbles, her chief of staff, she achieved them. She increased oil taxes; she won the legislative framework for a gas pipeline, though not the one Hickel wanted; and she signed significant ethics reforms. In all three efforts she won strong cooperation from Democrats. “She had an easy go of it,” says Larry Persily, a former editorial-page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, who went to work in Palin’s Washington office but is now a critic of the governor’s. “The Democrats were in love with her. She slew the oil-company Gorgon, and came in on the magic carpet of oil-tax reform and ethics. The Democrats were intoxicated because she wasn’t Frank Murkowski.” Rising oil prices provided an added lift. Palin was able to increase the annual distribution from the state’s Permanent Fund to about $3,000 per resident, almost double the amount received the previous year. She could be a fiscal conservative and a big spender all at the same time.
In other words, she has demonstrated a touch for the bipartisan appeal that press devotees of High Broderism worship.

This actually raises some questions that would be interesting and important in political journalism, but don't fit so well in the infotainment mode. How does her reported fight with the oil companies over raising their taxes and this supposed enthusiasm among Alaska's legislative Democrats square with the far-right approach of the Alaska Independence Party and the Third Wave Pentecostal theocrats? But since Purdum has "disappeared" her neo-Confederate and fanatical religious affiliations, that comparison wouldn't exactly fit.

That disappearing is a warning for Democrats. The frat boys and sorority girls of our press corps right now enjoying their script of Palin as a dumb beauty queen. But we've already had indications that this could easily flip into portraying her as a down-home tribune of the ordinary folks. Expensive dresses on the campaign's dime and bitchy clashes with staffers and former allies are celebrity gossip that can easily be reframed as charming eccentricities. The press corps fixates on fashion and style issues, so expensive dresses become a really significant item for them. But close association with a fringe neo-Confederate group like the AIP and deep involvement with a theocratic religious movement so out-there that the main Pentecostal denomination in the US, the Assemblies of God, formally considers it heresy, those are more substantial issues. And far more troubling. But they're too complicated to be easily covered in the space of a Twitter comment or two, so the press prefers to chase office gossip.

By the way, there are real journalists who actually cover this stuff, e.g., Max Blumenthal and David Neiwert, Meet Sarah Palin's radical right-wing pals Salon 10/10/08; Ruth at TalktoAction blog, Palin's churches and the Third Wave 09/05/08; Bruce Wilson, also of TalktoAction, Palin's Churches and the New Apostolic Reformation 09/05/08; Lisa Webster, Witches, Fine... Does Sarah Palin Believe in Religious Tolerance? Religious Dispatches 09/29/09.

A final point. Our alleged journalists enjoy pointing to Tina Fey's inspired spoofs of Palin as though they are some reflection on Palin herself. Purdum is no exception: "The swift journey from her knockout convention speech to Tina Fey’s dead-eyed incarnation of her as Dan Quayle with an updo played out in real time, no less for the bewildered McCain campaign than for the public at large."

But Tina Fey is a professional comedienne. She's supposed to be funny. Both Palin and McCain appeared with Tina Fey in her Palin role on Saturday Night Live. So presumably they didn't think her portrayal of Palin was insulting, inappropriate or damaging. In the SNL skit about the Biden-Palin debate, I actually laughed more at the portrayal of Biden, which cleverly captured his garrolous tendency to insert his foot into his mouth. And I saw an interview with Tina Fey herself that I thought was quite interesting. She talked about meeting Palin and how she actually found her an impressive person in that brief interaction. She said Palin was "the real deal", meaning that Palin's pleasant persona that she projects came off as genuine.

At least our comedians can still separate their portrayals of a character from that character's reality. Our so-called journalists have a hard time grasping that distinction.

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