Last week, I clicked over to the CNN home page and there, in a rundown of the day’s most important news, I saw a headline announcing that Nicole Richie had pneumonia. I immediately thought of Sarah Palin: I fully expect that, five or ten or 15 years from now, I’ll be reading a similar headline about her.
That’s not because I wish pneumonia on Palin. Nor do I think any of her future illnesses will be newsworthy--like, say, the illness of an important politician would be. The notion that she has a future in electoral politics outside of Alaska (and probably not even there) is absurd. As Ross Douthat has ably explained, Palin faced a choice--seriousness or celebrity--and she chose the latter.
But while Palin’s choice means that we’ll be spared of the prospect of Senator Palin or President Palin, that doesn’t mean that we’ll be rid of her any time soon. In fact, Palin’s choice augurs a longer period of relevance for her. Defeated politicians fade away (Mike Dukakis anyone?), but, in this day and age, celebrities, even talentless ones, linger. Less like pneumonia and more like a certain communicable disease, I’m afraid Sarah Palin is one of those things that will always be with us.
The reason for Palin’s staying power will be the same thing that keeps a celebrity like Richie’s old running partner, Paris Hilton, in the spotlight. No, not a sex tape, thank God, but something related: shamelessness. These days, once someone has attained a certain level of celebrity (as Hilton and Palin have), if that person is willing to say or do anything (as Hilton and Palin are), then it’s pretty much impossible to lose it (which Hilton and Palin won’t). New technologies like Facebook and Twitter have made that even easier, rendering it impossible for the media to ignore these celebs even if it were inclined to. Now, celebs can circumvent the media filter and communicate directly with the public. It’s no coincidence that Palin has taken to issuing all of her big pronouncement over Facebook. Granted, the press would probably cover whatever she’s saying at the moment. But when the day comes that the press isn’t interested, that won’t stop Palin from getting out word of her doings.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of any circumstance in which Palin would lose the dynamic--hated by some, loved by others--that makes her such a pop culture staple. Her future successes will be cheered by her admirers and scorned by her detractors; and her missteps will warm the hearts of her haters while being excused--and serving as more evidence that she’s being persecuted--by her fans. And if Palin were to somehow just try to go away? (Doubtful, I know.) Well, that in and of itself will become a story--like Britney disappearing for a stretch.
You might think that an ideological transformation would doom Palin, but I think she’d even survive that. What if, say, she were to suddenly renounce her conservative positions, become pro-choice, and join the anti-meat conspiracy as a card-carrying member of PETA? Sure, she’d lose the fans she has now, but she’d become a hero to all of her detractors. If you think changing your ideological colors is a career killer, then you should ask Norma McCorvey or David Brock how it turned out for him. There may be no better career move than switching political sides, and then confirming for your new ideological allies every bad thing they suspected about your old ones.
I suppose the only thing that could stop Palin from being a continuing player in our culture is sheer laziness. After all, one way to interpret her decision to choose celebrity over serious politics is that celebrity is easier. For the moment, that is. Eventually, Palin will have to work at staying in the public eye. Perhaps she’ll really put her head down and do the hard slog of hosting a TV talk show: Could she one day try to fill Oprah’s shoes? Or occupy the conservative chair on “The View”? If that’s too laborious, maybe she could go the Ann Coulter route and churn out designed-to-offend columns and speeches. Of course, even hackery like that takes some effort.
No, I think Palin will likely do the bare minimum and stay in the public eye through Facebook statements and Tweets and the occasional public scandal, not to mention the occasional bronchial infection. Alas, that’s probably enough to do the trick. Just ask Nicole Richie.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.