Let’s talk seriously for a moment about Sarah Palin. Now. Now. No eye rolling. Last week brought us word that the good ol’ gal has signed on to serve up some of that common-sense commentary on Fox News, and, like fellow veteran of the ’08 presidential melee Mike Huckabee, she will almost certainly take to the job like a lip-sticked pig to slop. Indeed, by year’s end, I expect Palin to have a show of her very own. (Basking in the love of devoted viewers a la Glenn Beck is so much more fun than the punch-in-the-face, knife-in-the-back life of a politician.)
For those not enraptured by the idea of the former Alaska governor having a political future in the lower 48, there are clear downsides to her new cable perch. But there are advantages as well. For starters, Palin will at least need to dial back the endless whining about how the media are out to get her and how she is a maliciously misrepresented victim of gotcha journalism. Any embarrassment Palin suffers at Fox will be despite the valiant efforts of her network pals, all of whom are exquisitely aware which end of the ideological spectrum their bread is buttered on.
Better still, the more Palin talks, the clearer picture we can all develop of what exactly is going on behind those winking but never blinking eyes. Doing so will undoubtedly require wading through a troughful of vapid sass, spunk, and folksiness. But the potential for unfiltered insight does exist.
Case in point: There has already been some tittering over Palin’s January 13 sit down with Glenn Beck, who at one point asked his new colleague to name her favorite founding father. With this softball, Beck wasn’t quite in Sarah, tell us what makes you such a great patriot territory, but he wasn’t far off. Even so, Palin’s immediate answer--“Well, all of ’em”--was such a non-committal cop-out that even Beck cried “bullcrap” and fell into exasperated giggles as Palin rambled on (and on) before at last plucking George Washington from the pack.
For even casual Palintologists, “all of ’em” will bring back memories of Katie Couric’s infamous inquiry into the then-VP candidate’s reading habits. At the time, Palin’s refusal--or, as many saw it, her inability--to name a single newspaper or magazine she read fueled the preexisting narrative that the aggressively anti-intellectual Alaskan was too incurious, out-of-touch, or irredeemably ignorant to be allowed within 1,000 miles of the Oval Office. Today, the Palin-as-idiot story line continues to enthrall, especially with the recent release of Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s revenge-of-the-disgruntled-staffers tale of the 2008 race, which claims that Palin required tutoring as to why there are two Koreas and why Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9-11. (Although, to be fair, Dick Cheney had much of America confused about the latter.)
Now, clearly Palin is not the most well-informed political figure on the scene. But her reluctance to play name-your-favorite with Beck, as with Couric, suggests something else is going on with her as well. Whether or not Palin is dangerously ignorant, she is obviously deeply insecure. That’s right, I am contending that Sarah Barracuda, a woman who still believes she was 100 percent qualified--not to mention anointed by God--to be first alternate in the Great American Presidential Pageant, can be reduced to incoherence by her fear of giving the “wrong” answer to a certain kind of personal yet knowledge-based question.
As many people noted post-Couric, of course Palin could have come up with a publication or two that would have put an end to Katie’s painful badgering. But then what if people made fun of her choice, deeming it insufficiently smart--or, worse yet, insufficiently conservative? A professional media basher, Palin understands that what you read says something about who you are, and she was clearly afraid of having people judge her in this area. (Would Time be trashed as too liberal? The Anchorage Daily News too provincial? The Economist too snooty? God forbid she even utter the words New York Times.)
Similarly, despite obviously knowing the name of at least one founding father (George Washington), Palin’s first instinct was to avoid expressing any preference to Beck. Why? Maybe because picking a favorite opens her up to dissection on any number of grounds--intellectual, aesthetic, cultural, political. She said Alexander Hamilton was her favorite founding father!? What kind of talking dog thinks Hamilton was worth a damn? Hasn’t she heard of the heavy-handed government crap championed by Hamilton? Besides, what kind of self-respecting man gets his guts blown out in a duel? (Taking it a step farther, Palin may have known that praising Jefferson or Hamilton could telegraph something about her political philosophy, but she wasn’t entirely sure which stood for what or who among the FFs it was safe to invoke.)
On the campaign trail, this anxiety could have stemmed from Palin’s not wanting to damage the McCain campaign, which clearly had its concerns about her early on. But these days the only person Palin stands to humiliate is herself--not that Beck would have allowed her to do any real damage during their hour-long love-in--and still her first impulse is to avoid taking a position.
Whatever its roots, Palin needs to weed out this weakness asap. Even more so than politics, political punditry is all about mouthing off on the topic du jour and never, ever second-guessing yourself. (Note to Sarah: Colleagues Krauthammer and Kristol can serve as exemplary role models in this regard.) If Palin eventually wants to run with the big dogs like Beck and O’Reilly, she’s going to have to loosen up, toughen up, and not fret about whether people are going to tear apart every little thing she says. And if this helps clarify what is--or is not--taking place inside Palin’s brain, then Fox News will have done all of us a favor.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.