Sarah Palin spoiled the media. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say she spoiled the public, who spoiled the media with their patronage whenever they covered her. In either case, the woman was endlessly fascinating. From that line in her 2008 RNC convention speech about not seeking the media’s good opinion, she assumed a fighting stance that could turn into plain insolence. When Joe Biden heard her ask him if she could call him Joe, he must have harumphed to himself that he’d been serving in the Senate since she was in a training bra, and that for her to be in a position to call him anything was a national scandal.
Since then, she’s been predictably unpredictable, re-writing her 2008 campaign itinerary, resigning Alaska’s governorship, tweeting to the masses, starring in a TLC reality show. With each of these moves, detractors told themselves that here, at last, was proof positive that she was an unelectable flake. But there remained the fear that what looked like self–indulgence might also represent a revolutionary approach to campaigning. Until recently, it seemed quite possible that Palin might, in the end, ascend the presidential podium to the strains of “My Way.”
With Michelle Bachmann, the GOP’s new front-runner, the formula just doesn’t work. Maybe it should. Bachmann has all the raw materials of Palinhood. As a conservative woman who opposes abortion and gay marriage, she’s fishing with the same bait that served Palin so well. If anything, Bachmann’s explicit and wholesale rejection of feminism sets her well to Palin’s right. If the media were the master agenda-setters and opinion-makers their critics take them for, then Bachmann’s strong showing in the Iowa straw poll should have raised her profile to Palinesque heights. But it hasn’t. Bachmann might yet be president, but she’ll never be a star.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi sums it up very neatly when he said that Bachmann is “the right kind of…crazy.” He means that, while her views may be extreme, her behavior is utterly conventional. As a speaker, she’s upbeat but dignified, warm but restrained, optimistic but not messianic. In Iowa, she praised “John Wayne’s America,” which strikes Salon’s Alex Pareene as “not far from being a white-supremacist dog whistle.” Pareene could be right — the Duke did fight Native Americans and Japanese — but delivered without a wide-eyed barracuda grin, the point just doesn’t carry.
Dwelling overlong on a female candidate’s appearance is dirty pool, but it’s still part of the game as we know it. (At least it’s a bipartisan affair: searching Google for “Hillary + Clinton + Cankles” turns up 24,500 results.) Whereas Sarah Palin has been compared to a sexy librarian and a slutty flight attendant, Taibbi once again has Bachmann’s number when he compares her to a Stepford wife — meaning, she’s well-maintained, even-featured and soignée, but not in any way saucy.
This week, Palin appears on the cover of Newsweek in a form-fitting sweatshirt. She is thrusting her bowsprit toward the camera — and toward the reader. Bachmann might one day feel obliged to follow suit. Newsweek’s Julia Baird warns of “an insistent, increasingly excitable focus on the supposed hotness of Republican women in the public eye.” But Bachmann’s heart wouldn’t be in it, any more than shooting the breeze over a Yngling beer likely engaged Obama’s. When Palin first emerged on the national stage, Abstinence Teacher author Tom Perrotta wrote that she embodied a familiar American archetype, the sexy puritan. “Sexy Puritans,“ Perrotta explains:
“engage in the culture war on two levels—not simply by advocating conservative positions on hot-button social issues but by embodying nonthreatening mainstream standards of female beauty and behavior at the same time. The net result is a paradox, a bit of cognitive dissonance very useful to the cultural right: You get a little thrill along with your traditional values, a wink along with the wagging finger.”
Not bad for a start, but Perrotta fails to acknowledge diversity within the species. It’s hard to pull off both halves of the act — the wink and the wagged finger — with equal conviction. It’s natural to stress one over the other. If Palin, like the young Britney Spears, is more of a winker, Bachmann, like Anita Bryant, is more of a wagger. That may be the safer choice. Waggers may be less eye-catching than winkers, but they’re also less vulnerable to charges of manipulation.
Compared to Palin’s, Bachmann’s gaffes are also less titillating. Though Palin does not lack for native intelligence, her knowledge has always been practical and parochial. In Blind Allegiance: A Memoir of Our Tumultuous Years, former Palin aide Frank Bailey claims Palin fumbled Katie Couric’s infamous question — “Which papers do you read?” — because an honest answer would have consisted solely of Alaskan papers. Palin came to seem, in Peggy Noonan’s words, “rather proud” to be judged ignorant by the media, since “it was proof of her authenticity.” Henry Ford dismissed history as bunk; Palin might add half a dozen other disciplines to the list. It’s as though she’s waging war on knowledge as we know it.
Aside from her perhaps over-publicized confusion regarding men named John, Bachmann is bedeviled most by details. And even that may be her choice. Of the “Top 12 Bachmann Gaffes” listed by newser, most look more than anything like spin, or strategic misrepresentation. For example, Bachmann once stated that, in 1961, the national debt came only to $300 billion, and a gallon of gasoline sold for only $0.31. True enough, says newser, until you adjust for inflation. Then, gas prices start to look more like $2.25. The debt still accounted for 55% of our GDP. “So she has a point,” concludes newswer, “but the difference is not nearly as dramatic as she’s implying.” Still awake?
And in her own subtle way, Bachmann is bedeviling the media. Since her trip to Iowa, many of Palin’s old enemies have offered Bachmann Palin’s seat of danger. In reporting her mixing-up of John Wayne’s birthplace with John Wayne Gacy’s, Salon photoshopped a clown’s nose — presumably a reference to Gacy’s favorite legal creative outlet — onto Bachmann’s picture. Playing the closest thing they could find to the Bristol card, or even the Trig birther card, Jon Stewart and Dan Savage have suggested, with varying degrees of earnestness, that Bachmann’s husband Marcus is gay.
But it doesn’t seem to be taking — not really. In contrast to Palin’s approach, Bachmann hasn’t swung back or made any serious attempt to rally her troops and keep the story going. When called on her misstatement that the Founding Fathers had “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, she smiled serenely, cited John Quincy Adams who had been “a young boy” during the nation’s foundation years, and who worked to end slavery as an adult. For her, that counted. Knowing he was licked, George Stephanopolous moved on to the next question. Like the kid said in the Connect Four commercial, pretty sneaky, Sis.
Heading up Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone profile is a caricature in which a a wild-eyed Bachmann, clad in armor, brandishes a sword and a Bible. Except for the Bible, this is not really a picture of Bachmann at all; it’s a picture of Sarah Palin with Bachmann’s face, or something like it. If the media really expect to rattle Bachmann, they’re going to have to put that kind of wishful thinking to bed. They’re dealing with an altogether different animal with altogether different weaknesses. Unless the media can sound those out, they may have to get used to another conservative president who, after the manner of Reagan, dresses for success in Teflon.
UPDATE: Hot Air and Instapundit just linked me. Thank you, kind sirs!