“I had a dream last night that I was lost in Sarah Palin’s garden. It was springtime, and there were bluebells everywhere. I suddenly realized where I was and tried to get out to the street. But there was just more garden . . .”
Thinking about the news of Sarah Palin’s divorce, I find myself pulling up Andrew Sullivan’s infamous 2010 blog post, wondering . . . how to explain the woman who exploded into our collective dreams.
How about this: she was a Tantric goddess?
Looking back, we see a momentous drama happening in Evangelical Christianity, a culture whose hatred of women was exceeded only by their lust for political power. She put them in a funny place. I love her for that.
To understand her, we’d have to think about Evangelicalism, which saw female leaders, and even women speaking publicly, as deeply wrong. Women were bad, since the Garden.
I loved Palin’s 2008 GOP convention performance. I love the Valentino suit, the poise, the jokes. As Germaine Greer recalls: “It was the most adroit political speech I had ever seen anybody give. Her timing would have done credit to Joan Rivers. She was amazing.”
Maybe liberal people, schooled by feminism, had gone through such dramas back in the 1960s and 1970s. But for the right wing, feminism was the F-word, and women were properly the accessory to the man.
The American right had never had a female leader, accepting women on the public stage only when they were starchly unsexual and genteel, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, or anti-feminist tools, like Phyllis Schlafly.
Often not well-prepared for this role, Palin had obvious anxiety, and enemies in her own camp, like Mitt Romney, the misogynist with a vision of himself as the next Mormon prophet, not about to let a little lady from Wasilla, Alaska get in his way.
But she had a mysterious inner quality that couldn’t be ignored. I liked a comment in a 2009 Maureen Dowd column:
As Judith Doctor, a 69-year-old spiritual therapist, told The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz at Palin’s book signing in Grand Rapids, Mich., “She’s alive inside, and that radiates energy, and people who are not psychologically alive inside are fascinated by that.”
And so people loved her, even when they didn’t know why.
There were women problems in the liberal consciousness as well. Who could forget Sandra Bernhard saying, on Palin’s nomination, that she was a “turncoat bitch” who’d be “gang-raped by my big black brothers” if entering Manhattan.
Calling Palin a “slut,” “cunt,” saying she should be raped, defecated on, etc., etc., became routine in liberal venues. But liberal writers were suddenly agreeing that sexualized attacks were wrong, regardless of whether the subject was liked. It was the first stirrings of #MeToo.
Journalists who’d covered her were later exposed as serial sexual harassers, including Mark Halperin, the co-author of Game Change. Joe McGuinness, who stalked her under the pretense of writing a book, as she’d note, had a history of fantasies of harming women.
It was a world only beginning to wake up from the long, dark night.
Looking back, maybe Palin was balancing a world that had dangerously excluded the feminine. Her politics were aggressively pro-female, as she moved, against her party, to champion female candidates, like Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez, who owe their political lives to Palin’s endorsement, as she was the wind beneath the wings of Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and many others who’d become party leaders.
Then old-school Republicans were being exposed as outdated dinosaurs, as when Ohio’s Todd Akin dragged down the party with his “legitimate rape” comment. If only Ohio primary voters had gone with Palin’s endorsement, the formidable Sarah Steelman, they’d have saved the GOP a headache. Palin, of course, urged him to step down. Akin didn’t, lost to Claire McCaskill, and his comments were used to brand the election cycle.
Right-wing culture wasn’t used to women, often didn’t like them, or understand their needs. Cindy Adams, the New York Post gossip columnist and all-around good observer of people, recalls Palin at an event, wearing a skirt and being put on an elevated position so that her thighs would’ve been exposed. Sarah the athlete handled it without a comment, as Adams watches with interest: “She perched near the edge, back ramrod-straight, uncrossed legs straight down, glued to one another, for over an hour.”
Adams adds: “I only know even those who don’t love her, liked her. Magnetic, without notes on her hand, she was engaging, amusing, good-looking. The self-important audience laughed, applauded, wasn’t bored, never stirred.”
Right-wing politics, formerly boring, authoritarian, the realm of men in stuffy suits, was suddenly fun.
Even after the Obama victory, there was a massive effort to investigate her, producing an endless stream of articles, books, news segments, documentaries.
When I was reading David Frawley’s Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, I thought of her. “The Goddess represents what is to be known, what we are drawn by an inner fascination to discover,” he writes.
Looking back we can see how much the supposed exposés were really just looking for female details—emotion, interest in clothes, and the need to take care of her children. Remember the “ethics complaints” she was accused of concerned Palin as governor bringing her small daughter with her on long trips across the state. The “ethics complaint” was the airline fuel.
Any sex outside male control was to be exposed. And, of course, she’s dumb, hysterical, shrill. Her language is chaotic. She throws things. It was just the old misogynist playbook.
I liked Camille Paglia’s analysis, in 2008:
As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism.
As Palin says of herself that she is “one of the most genuine feminists that ever can be, and that is truly believing that God’s created us equal.”
Many liberals assumed that as an Evangelical, Palin had dedicated her life to pitching the “family values” morality agenda.
Actually, Palin accomplished the remarkable feat of getting right-wing people to talk about something else. Helping to launch the “Tea Party” movement, it was about budgets, pitched in terms of a wise housewife.
The Tea Party carried an underlying tone of female participation and empowerment, and was to some extent, right-wing feminism in disguise. As Palin memorably says in 2011, “Fight like a girl.”
A key to her politics was female athleticism—of the female body being allowed to be erotic and athletic, yet mentally engaged and politically serious. It was a difficult project on view in her 2009 Runner’s World profile.
She was often doing yoga, at times so gaunt she’d looked like a yogi from India. She’d mock paparazzi for seeking photos of her after a session, posting some herself. “No one said workouts were glamorous.”
The engaged, athletic, sexual female body was a new experience even for liberal people. Her experience as a high school athlete, and especially as a beauty pageant contestant, seemed to be understood as “non-serious,” but I love her being embodied in these roles.
She seems always to have been very sexual. She was pregnant with her first child before being married, and went on to have five. Joe McGuinness revealed that, prior to her marriage, Palin had an affair with Glen Rice, the black basketball player, who years later, still seems smitten.
Palin’s easy, humorous, generous sexuality as a middle-aged woman is not even seen in Hollywood. I love the 2015 promo for her Amazing America show, where she’s a rocker and then hippie chick.
I love the subplot with Bristol Palin, who was an “unwed mother”—a stupid phrase—when Palin was selected as VP in 2008. Catching wind of that, the media was sure such immorality would horrify her Evangelical base. But suddenly, it was all right.
Bristol writes in her memoir, Not Afraid of Life, that she’d been raped by her boyfriend, Levi Johnston, and out of shame, tried to make a relationship work.
Even though I was a proud high school graduate, I walked around town with a scarlet letter on my chest. At least that’s how I felt. I’d read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel in tenth grade but had only recently developed a newfound appreciation of poor Hester Prynne’s struggle to create a new life for herself after getting pregnant outside of marriage.
Red was always Sarah Palin’s color. As much like Hester Prynne as her daughter, she was another “red” woman who causing problems, whose sexuality was disordering of the (male) establishment. America did not think itself far from its Puritan roots, and in a way, Palin herself may have finally severed this old, evil connection.
Bristol would be widely mocked as an abstinence advocate who got pregnant again. But maybe having sex on her own terms was a discovery?—and there wasn’t the language to say that, exactly.
It’s not like we know how to talk about these things. Really, we don’t.
Palin’s language, so often derided, seems interesting to me. She adds words, upsetting typical sentence structures. It’s a perfect representation of her political career.
She starts sentences without finishing them. That also seems to connect to her political career, as in resigning as governor, or beginning a presidential campaign and discontinuing it. Her mode is to provoke and unsettle, then shift and re-group, darting away.
I loved a sentence I noticed on a liberal blog: “Palin’s response is rambling, tragic, bonkers; she goes into sentences with no exit plan.”
Rambling, tragic, bonkers—seems like a description of life. But Palin’s language is often inventive and fun. I love her description of her birth, in her memoir Going Rogue: “From Sandpoint, Idaho, where I was born, via Juneau, Alaska, I touched down in the windy, remote frontier town of Skagway cradled in my mother’s arms. I was just three months old, and barely sixty days had passed since the largest earthquake on record in North American history struck Alaska on Good Friday, March 27, 1964.”
I love the image of birth as having “touched down” on earth, and of seeing one’s birth in proximity to a massive earthquake. She does seem unusually tied into climate and weather. She would often be spoken of in reference to hurricanes and earthquakes. I notice the detail of the “mother’s arms”—fatherly authority was invisible. What matters is women.
She would be criticized for attending a series of six colleges, a process explained as her not being sure what climate was right for her. I think for her that was a difficult decision, for she loves heat and sunlight. But something wasn’t right? She tried Hawaii and Idaho, before settling back to Alaska, which somehow fit her mythic requirements. I loved Gore Vidal’s arch commentary on her, in 2008, as “the Queen of Alaska” and “Her Alaskan Majesty.”
She seems like a mystic ice queen in the February 2008 issue of Vogue. That was just before the McCain campaign picked her, and so the personal attacks. For her to enter the comic, vaudeville, crazy, deranged process of American politics must’ve felt like a deity descending to earth.
In 2009, Levi Johnston was adopted by the media as an anti-Palin weapon. He did a nude photo shoot with Playgirl, which seems to depict him as a hustler—a dispirited young man selling himself to men.
There was a lot of focus on his ass, as if the straight stud had been flipped into gay sex toy. Since Palin was taken to be anti-gay, was this framed as a way of humiliating her?—not the first time I’ve thought that liberal people can use gay sexuality as a weapon of attack.
I never understood Palin to be anti-gay, though she might not think her prospective son-in-law was making much of himself.
She told the McCain campaign that she’d be publicly against gay marriage (as were McCain, Obama, Biden, Hillary Clinton, etc.), but would not attack gays. It came up in the famous Katie Couric interview. “One of my absolute best friends for the last 30 years happens to be gay, and I love her dearly,” Palin says. “And she is not my ‘gay friend,’ she is one of my best friends — who happens to have made a choice that isn’t a choice that I have made. But I am not going to judge people.”
Palin was attacked, for wasn’t she saying that being gay is a ‘choice’? She might actually be allowing that she herself is bisexual, but preferred finally to be married and have a family. Being bisexual is hardly unusual for a very charismatic person.
But I saw her as talking here, mostly, to her Evangelical base, who deeply believed that being gay was a choice, and exiled those who make it. Against that, she leverages the values of friendship, and a warning not to judge. In a VP debate with Biden, she repeated that she was “tolerant” of Americans “choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves.”
She would regularly chide Republicans on gay issues, championed the lesbian radio host Tammy Bruce, and employed gay people on her staff.
As with Andrew Sullivan, the gay liberal blogger who seemed deeply affected by her, inventing a conspiracy of her not giving birth to her fifth child, there was however, with Palin, an ongoing . . . gay drama?
In 2010, the gay writer Michael Joseph Gross was tasked by Vanity Fair with writing a profile of Palin as a classic diva.
During the campaign, Palin lashed out at the slightest provocation, sometimes screaming at staff members and throwing objects. Witnessing such behavior, one aide asked Todd Palin if it was typical of his wife. He answered, “You just got to let her go through it… Half the stuff that comes out of her mouth she doesn’t even mean.”
Palin’s reply to this profile was striking in its vehemence and sexual detail: “Those who are impotent and limp and gutless and they go on their anonymous — sources that are anonymous — and impotent. Limp and gutless reporters take anonymous sources and cite them as being factual references.”
She is saying Gross wasn’t using his penis when he wrote—an interesting idea of the penis as a tool of investigation.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Palin was the first Republican of national standing to endorse Donald Trump. Done on the edge of the critical Iowa caucus, it was an expertly timed strike. “Did Sarah Palin Just Win Iowa for Donald Trump?” asks The Nation.
And the answer, of course, is yes. The first time I realized he was a serious political force was when she paused her infamous 2011 bus trip to have pizza with him. In retrospect it seems a key meeting of political revolutionaries intent on destroying a party that hated each of them.
Then, in Iowa, she gave Trump the nudge that made the difference in his 2016 campaign. I laughed and laughed! The GOP had called her a “kingmaker,” like a consolation prize — and the party’s way of depriving her of power. It didn’t know the king she’d “make” would lunge for their throats.
I liked Ann Althouse’s framing: “Trump is Sarah Palin.” She analyzes Trump’s now-famous direct and odd speech patterns as Palinesque: “short, punchy statements. It’s rousing, rallying. It feels nervy and brave.”
Had Trump learned political speech by studying Palin? Althouse continues: “Get used to political speech that’s not tame and calculated but emotive and in-the-minute, with enough substance showing through along the way that you never lose the sense that it’s about real issues.”
Every day of the Trump presidency was Palin’s revenge. It seemed to require she be forgotten. She wasn’t offered a spot in his administration, and realizing that, I suspect she was, privately, deeply disappointed.
I’ve seen her speak, and met her once, at a book signing. We chatted about a minute. I still remember an immediate sense of engagement that she created, and that she was bright and warm.
Of my long interest in her, I think of odd moments that wouldn’t get recorded in any other histories. Photographing her for Newsweek in 2011, in view of a presidential bid, the young photographer Emily Shur is sent to Alaska to do a shoot. In a since-deleted blog post, she narrates:
Sarah and I started to slowly walk around her property, and she pointed out some areas where she had been photographed before and some where she hadn’t. I asked her if she would be willing to do this and maybe that, and she said yes. I said great. I told her I would be ready in about 15 minutes. She said she’d meet me back outside then. Mind you, I had no assistant, no digital tech, no nothing. I haven’t done a shoot on my own, let alone a cover shoot, in I don’t even know how long. Sarah did her own hair and make up, and when I asked her what she wanted to wear, she said, “I’m wearing this!” Again, I said great. We proceeded to shoot together, just the two of us, for about an hour and a half. This was one of those surreal moments we have as photographers where we are checking our light, composing the frame, making sure everything is right and tight, but in the back of our heads the thoughts are more along the lines of, “What the hell is happening here?!!!
That sentence, “What the hell is happening here?”—is a continual reminder of Palin’s gifts. The unexpected happens. She was making an experience happen for the young photographer—to rip her out of the routine, to bring her, consciously, into the immediacy of life.
I was startled by the news of Palin’s divorce after over thirty years. I reflected on what a disruption her charisma and abilities had been to her family.
I hope she’ll have yet more adventures. The world needs them.