Palin's Terminal Velocity
"She reminds me of my wife."
That was the most frequent comment I received via e-mail on the September night Sarah Palin spoke to a riveted Republican National Convention in 2008, as the vice-presidential nominee spoke of hockey moms, pit bulls, lipstick, the dignity of human life, and the future of our nation.
I suspect every man who e-mailed wasn't revealing his secret fantasy -- his wife wearing stilettos as she tries to save the world from a Barack Obama presidency. He finally saw, on prime-time television and impossible for the media to ignore, a woman in politics who closely resembled his family's values. After decades of ladies on the stump reading from a Ms. magazine script, here was a woman on a presidential ticket who didn't seem to feel the need to suppress her femininity or perversely use it to advance a most un-motherly agenda.
It was liberating.
In this way, she made that night historic, for both the right and left. And she's still driving emotion and headlines.
And, in case you missed it (and I don't blame you if you did): Apparently Democratic voters would vote for Charlie Sheen for president over Palin -- 44 to 22 percent. Independents opted for the former wild child, too, 41 to 36 percent. That the Wall Street Journal even thought to poll such a thing tells you something about the bizarre political and cultural climate surrounding this lightning rod of a woman.
Some of the more inventive attacks on her -- most recently she was compared to Al Sharpton -- have been known to bring high-profile commentators to her defense, even while others express their concern.
The political sideshow makes for a chattering class TV producer's dream.
But putting her name alongside Charlie Sheen and Al Sharpton? It's all a little bizarre -- even for a media in constant need fresh chum. There are justified criticisms, but the widespread reactions to the mere name and image of Sarah Palin continues to know no bounds.
"The people who say such things don't know her, have never spent time with her, and are responding to a caricature of what they think she is," Rebecca Mansour, who works at Palin's political action committee, says. "Do you remember Archbishop Fulton Sheen's famous quote about anti-Catholicism?" she asks me and answers: "He said there are only a few of people who hate what Catholicism really is, but there are millions who hate what they think it is. If these critics would spend a few hours reading her words, listening to her speeches, and studying her actual record of accomplishments, there is no way they could say such things about her and still claim to be intellectually honest."
There is something to that Sheen quote. Not from Charlie but the late bishop, a revered preacher who hosted one of the first prime-time television shows; someone who understood human communications. It's why all those men e-mailed me on then-governor Palin's first big night out on the national stage. It's why she drives the left wild, and has provided a source of fundraising and programming for nothing less than the Democratic National Committee. She's at the convergence of politics and culture. Her mere presence -- of her and her family -- brings some of our most contentious issues to the fore. They are our most contentious because they're the most personal. They are at the heart of who we are as individuals and a culture.
I thought of the unceasing reactions to Palin as I sat with two generations of anti-feminists at a recent book-launch event for "The Flipside of Feminism," written by Phyllis Schlafly, that brave lone warrior against the so-called Equal Rights Amendment, and her niece, Suzanne Venker. Schlafly is an unapologetic fan of Palin -- much more so than Venker -- because she knows what a brave, outspoken political woman faces. She's been there.
You don't have to want Palin to be president to acknowledge that the frenzy around her may have more to do with us than her.
On multiple fronts, the former governor of Alaska is actually much more complicated than most of the debates about her even begin to capture. She's that pro-life mom, a poster gal for whom the Susan B. Anthony List, dedicated to electing pro-life women, was waiting. But she's also been known to get her inner Gloria Steinem on -- which is ironic given Steinem stands among those who would excommunicate her from her gender if she could. Born and raised in a culture where girls were educated as if they were an oppressed class in need of empowerment, often at the expense of boys, she's representative of a value system that is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that the sexual revolution messed with some very fundamental things.
I do think that when all is said and done in 2012, the candidate who finds his or her name on the top of the Republican ticket is going to be someone who doesn't evoke the passions of a wounded culture in quite the same way. But I also think denying that Sarah Palin, flaws and all, already holds a positive place in our history is akin to believing that Charlie Sheen is actually "winning."