Thursday, November 13, 2008

Palin as the Media's Flail and Bush Surrogate

I don't consider myself a fan of Andrew Sullivan, and I've disagreed with him pretty strongly in the past, but today he wrote a thoughtful explanation of why he continues to flog Sarah Palin.

It's a short piece and worth reading, but this is his mission statement:
Her candidacy, in short, was indefensible. It remains indefensible. Until the mainstream media, the GOP establishment, and the conservative intelligentsia acknowledge the depth of their error, this blog will keep demanding basic accountability.

My point is not to persecute or hound some random person. I wish I had never heard of Sarah Palin.... It's distressing to everyone, which is why most journalists left many aspects of this charade alone. But Palin is claiming vindication, is on every cable show, is at the National Governors Association Conference, and is touted as a future leader of the GOP. There comes a point at which you have to simply call a time out and insist that this farce cease and some basic accountability and transparency be restored to the process.
I agree with and applaud his mission. I agree wholly with his statement that Palin had no business being nominated for Vice-President of any country not founded by clowns and represents the nadir of a broken political philosophy that puts whipping up the fervid emotions and faithful irrationalities of a base over quantifiable intelligence or knowledge and the benefit of all Americans, regardless of bracket or orientation. But while that might be his motive, I don't think it explains the overall media fascination with the — uh — abortion that was the Palin candidacy and is the Palin phenomenon.

Palin seems to me to be an object of Media Expiation, the flail, the scourge by which they beat themselves for their frequent and disappointing absence of fortitude and tenacity for the last eight years and much of this campaign.

For example, few writers from mainstream journalistic organs "went after" Palin's bafflingly moronic and vapid statements until she'd done most of the work for them. The disastrous chaperoned post-convention appearances, her implosions during Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric's interviews, her lunatic twaddle on the stump: all of it sunk her before they could. By tepidly reporting what happened, the media could finally again look like they held a politician's feet to the fire while doing nothing more than what would have been demanded of them. The tone of their reporting was not so much laudable as it was inevitable. Perversely, Palin's inaptitude — and the entertainment quality of it — presented itself so stridently and unmistakably that it destroyed any reticence her critics could have hidden behind.

Audience reaction, too, played a part. Something in the way people live in the studio and at home on Hulu and Youtube seemed almost giddy at seeing these monstrous idiocies attacked must have galvanized the media. It certainly didn't hurt that Saturday Night Live drew enormous laughs and praise by having Tina Fey, for long stretches, literally repeat Sarah Palin verbatim. The last month of the campaign then became something of an exhilarating revelation that the media need not keep filing down its teeth. FOX news personalities (most notably Shepherd Smith) even started getting testy with republican campaign staffers. Follow-up questions for candidates actually started to sting.

But I don't think those last few weeks represented the full media compulsion toward absolution and self-assertion. The long knives most definitely came out after the electorate proved Palin a failure. There were no more real consequences to tearing her apart to reveal the meager outer shreds and vacuous center there all along. And in this respect, I think she acts as a Bush surrogate more than anything else.

First consider just the surface similarities:
• an almost impressively uneducated candidate
• governor of a state
• inexperienced
• dotted by some scandal
• prone to malapropisms
• cozy with hardcore evangelicals
• a hard campaigner for oil
• scornful of the media
• panderer to "real America"
• scare-monger who invokes the names of looming enemies
• purveyor of broken math, tax-cut dreams and free-market pabulum (despite the mountains of current evidence against their use as a panacea).
Then consider those similarities in execution: the smugness of the unintelligence, the proud viciousness with which she attacked anyone who had the temerity to appear qualified for a job, the supercilious disregard for the record wrapped in affected and disingenuous folksiness. If Palin's concentrated reduction of Bushism and Bush philosophy had been any more intense or any more spot-on, she would have been a satire. I'm not sure she wasn't.

This, I think, ultimately provoked her media backlash. The American media has been, let's face it, kicked around and insulted by the Bush administration for eight years — treated, like an appendix, as some sort of useless political-evolutionary dead-end that only needed to go a little bit further south before they'd finally have an excuse to hack it off and throw it into history's waste bin. Cowed into submission by charges verging on treason and claims of partisan vengefulness that didn't even approach a tenth of the administration's, the media seemed almost content to wait to emerge after Inauguration Day, after the shooting stopped.

Yet as Palin methodically performed her own career and character assassination while attacking those who had the audacity merely to describe it, I think a horrifying glimmer of recognition went up amongst most of the media. It was the Same Old Horror—Different Name, and by the time she lost, there could be no recriminations of anti-Americanism. Kicking the losing candidate while down is a proud and perfectly valid tradition.

While she was a VP-to-be giving her a righteous curb-stomping could have appeared to sandbag the national security interests of a future administration. But with Palin the Loser, there could be no possibility of being accused of betraying the interests of national security, and the media suddenly relished the task of vigorously fighting for those interests by making sure no sin of the incompetent and uninformed did not see the light of day — that, in Sullivan's words, "We have to find a way to prevent this from recurring."

Palin simultaneously offered a chance for the media to do its current job while living out the suppressed dreams of the jobs they wished they'd been doing for eight years. His atrocious destruction of language — incorrectly considered a petty concern in a "post-9/11" world — went criticized in her by people who recognized that words matter, and that the last eight years have seen a war declared on meaning, understanding and process just as much as on truth. His sickening ignorance of the world beyond our borders found a new target as these people realized that, after eight years of bankrupting and murderous bumbling, four more from someone who considered a second-story western view to be international experience would be yet more unmitigated disaster.

As each new disclosure from former McCain staffers points up just how deficient Palin was, I believe the media sees yet another example in which it was as well. Palin and Bush's sins might be sins of omission — of education, nuance, empathy, tolerance, openness, multilateralism, perspective, etc. — but each is matched by one of the media's own. Omission of courage, omission of authority, omission of the mandate for communication — omission, in essence, of voice. To see Bush's doppelgänger blithely turn away fact and presumptuously assert a familiar air of unaccountability, unawareness and unrepentance was, I think, the final act necessary to impel enough media members to demand a reckoning.

Palin is their expiation. Burning away her every iniquity burns away the stain of their own inaction. That she now cannot help lead America and that they will work to promote the understanding that she should not — this is their absolution for the years in which they let a nearly identical message go suppressed, in which they let their righteousness be demonized, in which their omission helped damn us all.