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After Wendy Davis, the Strangeness of Watching Paula Deen

For anyone who has been following the news for the past 24 hours, watching the “Today” show this morning was a surreal experience. It was easy to forget that the main event of the broadcast was still—hours after a state senator had heroically talked nonstop for half a day to thwart a bill in Texas—the umpteenth apology of Paula Deen. Matt Lauer teased the upcoming Supreme Court decisions and dropped one offhand comment about Wendy Davis, then looked into the camera and grimly announced: “A lot of people are looking forward to what Paula Deen has to say.” “Endorsement deals are very much on the line,” he added. Despite having backed out of her scheduled appearance last Friday, he promised, today she is “sticking to her commitment.” And sure enough, 30 minutes later, there she was on his couch, looking blowsy and red-faced, tears flowing freely. “Would you have fired you?” Lauer asked. “Would I have fired me, knowing me? No,” she replied.  

Deen’s misguided focus was the idea that anyone who knows her personally would understand that she isn’t the monster she is being made out to be. “I’m so distressed that people I’ve never met are all of the sudden experts on who I am,” she said. “You know what distresses me most? That their words are being given weight.” But Deen is not just a victim of schoolyard gossip; she is a multi-million dollar empire whose brand depends on creating an illusion of intimacy with the people who watch her show, on encouraging them to feel that they too, like the supportive friends and family she kept citing, know her personally. She also did not do herself any favors by admitting that she used the n-word 30 years ago only after having been robbed at gunpoint by a black man, which gave the whole ordeal a strange new weight. And she cast some of the blame on the young black kitchen workers who casually throw the n-word around in her presence. “It’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchen and hear what these young people are calling each other ... I think that for this problem to be worked on,” she said, “these young people are gonna have to take control and start showing respect for each other.” The “Today” show itself became a tragic symbol of Deen’s bygone glory days. “Thank you for having me, Matt, and it feels so strange to come to this wonderful happy place where I’ve always come so happily,” she wept.

Of course, much of America cares more about Deen’s fall from grace than the Defense of Marriage Act or Prop 8 or the many other momentous things happening in the country at this particular moment. And clearly the fact that Deen’s story has been engulfed by bigger news, making her much less of a get than she would have been last week, was not enough to deter the “Today” show from hosting her. But in the game of image management, it didn’t help Deen to appear so ramblingly self-absorbed, telling Lauer that she “had to hold friends in my arms while they’ve sobbed” because they were so distraught about her damaged reputation. “I believe that every creature on this earth is equal no matter who you go to bed at night with,” Deen said at one point—which seemed like the one flicker of awareness of the world outside the show. 

Follow @lbennett.