In his eye-opening, astute new book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin, Matthew Continetti argues that the “story of Sarah Palin is the story of American political journalism’s intellectual bankruptcy,” and while Continetti’s narrative does include plenty of lesser-known biographical detail it also contextualizes Palin into a fascinating case study of the politics of personal destruction as employed by the left-leaning cultural and media elites who constantly tsk-tsk…the politics of personal destruction. “It’s not new for a prominent political figure to be hated,” Continetti tells TAS. “But it is novel when a political figure becomes so hated so quickly, and for that hatred to be based on so little information.” Appalled by this persistent knowledge gap, the Weekly Standard editor undertook the challenge of setting the record straight and answering, to his mind, “the most outrageous insults, myths, and exaggerations directed at her and her family.”
Continetti was kind enough to chat recently with TAS about The Persecution of Sarah Palin — sure to soon be seen as the essential companion to Palin’s own upcoming memoir Going Rogue.
One of the most common attacks against those who failed to see Barack Obama as a shining demigod upon a hill was to psychologize an unflattering “fear of the other” onto them, but as you catalogue in detail there was quite a bit of hysteria about this “stranger from the strangest part of America” coming from those same ranks, no? How much projection was going on?
MC: Plenty. But the larger phenomenon is that there are two political Others — the liberal and the conservative. Each demonizes the other. Each sifts through the evidence, picking out that which confirms their worst fears and ignoring the rest. And yet it was odd, to say the least, that liberals would react in such a hysterical manner to a politician whose reputation rested on bipartisan ethics reform, taking on the oil companies, and overthrowing a state GOP establishment. But, because no one knew anything about Palin, the media shoehorned her into their pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all narrative about socially conservative ignoramuses bent on taking America back to the Stone Age.
Sarah Palin seems to currently be in a horserace with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh for Go-To Bogeyman of the Left. On election night 2009, for example, Chris Matthews unequivocally labeled her a “theocrat,” and a denier of “basic American notions of pluralism.” Do you think the left’s ability to take a bipartisan, popular reformer and turn her into a crank in much of the citizenry’s minds will embolden them to take a similar guns-blazing-with-half-truths-and-conspiracy-theories approach in all future campaigns?
MC: I’ll have to include that Matthews quote in the paperback edition! But, to answer your question, I think the ferocity of the Palin episode was unique, because her nomination to the vice presidency came as an absolute shock to the media. Most of them had never heard of her, and yet there she was, standing next to John McCain as the balloons fell from the rafters of the XCEL Energy Center. What nerve! And so the environment was ripe for all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories to fester about this mystery woman from the North.
No one in the press, as you point out, “asked Joe Biden whether he literally believed in the transubstantiation or the Virgin Birth” or complained about explicitly religious ads run on behalf of Barack Obama’s campaign, but they were nevertheless more than happy to “twist and contort” Palin until she “fit the stereotype of the boorish, Luddite religious conservative.” One gets the impression she could join the Secular Coalition of America and still be denounced as a fundamentalist. Why is it that what was good for the “progressive” goose wound up getting the conservative gander shellacked as a “Christianist”?
MC: Palin’s tradition of Christianity was absolutely central to the liberal critique. Simply put, the American left blanches at public expressions of religiosity and believes that political figures should mention their faith only in service of liberal policy aims. Thus it did not matter that millions of people share Palin’s Christian faith. Nor did it matter that, in both her gubernatorial administration and on the campaign trail, Palin mentioned her religion rarely and neither governed nor campaigned as a strident social conservative. The stereotype was so powerful that liberals saw zealotry where none existed.
It is nigh impossible to deny that a female vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket would have driven self-proclaimed feminists to insist a powerful independent woman — who, sure, disagreed with them on policy, but, still… — should be back at the homestead rearing children and cooking meals rather than in politics. What is it about what you dub as “frontier feminism” that took a potential symbol of female empowerment and achievement and turned her into an enemy of “right-thinking” women?
MC: Palin does not subscribe to the full menu of what the political consultant and author Jeffrey Bell has called “adversarial feminism.” But Palin is a feminist. She supports Title IX, frequently mentions the “glass ceiling” separating women from men, attacked Barack Obama for paying his female Senate staff members less than male staff, and outlined a pro-woman foreign policy that Hillary Clinton would be comfortable supporting. But she is also pro-life and does not believe that women necessarily must trade off a happy home life for professional success. And so the feminist establishment began a crusade to expel her from the city of ladies. They succeeded in making her politically polarizing. But, I think, they also irrevocably tarnished their ability to speak on behalf of women as a whole.
“The resemblances between McCain’s and Palin’s political styles,” you write, “are uncanny” — “Like McCain, Palin becomes self-righteous when she confronts individuals who offend her idealistic sensibilities”; “Like McCain, Palin seemed to revel in holding members of her own party to account”; “Like John McCain, she was the triumphant underdog.” Yet not all of these traits have endeared McCain to the conservatives whom Sarah Palin is wildly popular with.
MC: The difference is in the context. What conservatives know about McCain is the many times that he has fought them. When Palin appeared, conservatives, like liberals, knew only that she was pro-life. Then conservatives witnessed the way in which liberals treated her. They rallied to her side. It’s interesting to note that, in Alaska, conservatives and Republicans have a much more nuanced — and sometimes more skeptical — view of Palin. They did not like when she cut deals with Democrats. They did not like when she criticized the state GOP establishment. So, when you examine her more closely, you see that the parallels between Palin and McCain remain quite striking.
Despite the energy Palin brought to the McCain ticket late in the game, you nevertheless say she was a “loyal soldier in an army that did not appreciate her true value,” and that the McCain campaign “made her famous but it also shoehorned her into a bad media strategy and a partisan straitjacket.” How was Palin devalued? How could her “true value” unbound have potentially made a difference in the election?
MC: It remains the case that the only time McCain polled ahead of Barack Obama was during the two weeks between the GOP convention and the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. I believe that Palin was central to this upsurge in support for the Republican ticket. Could things have turned out differently on Election Day? Probably not. In many ways the 2008 GOP ticket faced an impossible task. It sought to replace an unpopular incumbent of the same party during a time of war and recession. That’s a bad bet. Nonetheless, it remains true that the McCain team did not know what they had in Palin. Since they worried about her abilities, they limited her exposure to high-pressure interviews with network television anchors not known for sympathy to conservatives. Had Palin been allowed to speak out more, and to various news outlets, she no doubt would have made some rookie mistakes — but those mistakes would have disappeared against a larger backdrop of accessibility, common sense, and charm.
“The landscape of Alaska was littered with the carcasses of Republican bulls she had emasculated,” one of your sources tells you. The always-incisive Michael Goldfarb, your current colleague and former McCain campaign staffer, says, “She has enemies everywhere in Alaska. And they’re all Republicans. The upside had been that she’d worked with Democrats. As soon as she’s picked, though, there’s no Democrat who’ll say anything nice about her.” You add, “The Alaskan Palin-haters met willing accomplices in the global media” — and further note that this is the same media that couldn’t find anyone in Alaska with a nice thing to say about a governor with upwards of 80 percent job approval.
To reluctantly drag out a Winston Churchill quote already employed ad nauseam: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” And the right enemies can say positive things about one’s character, of course. But considering the demonization and the resignation in the face of frivolous ethics complaints by partisans unable to let the election go, did Palin’s enemies actually achieve some measure of victory? Is this an example of how the political independence and post-ideologue-ness we supposedly hold as a national ideal can be deadly in the arena of political reality?
MC: Victory for Palin’s enemies would come if they succeeded in their attempts to drive her out of public life. sThat hasn’t happened. If anything, she has become more powerful, more influential, over time. She did more to change the shape of the health care debate in one Facebook post than any other major Republican politician. She led the way in national Republican support for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Alaska was holding her down. So she broke free. And now she can speak out as often as she wants.
Palin has a habit of making bold decisions that may seem odd at the time. When she entered the Alaska Republican gubernatorial primary in October 2005, she was making an extremely risky decision. When she made her surprise announcement that she would resign from office on July 26, 2009, nobody knew what to think. In retrospect, both decisions make eminent sense. She won the 2006 primary in a landslide and won the general election to become governor. Her resignation has allowed her to return to the national stage as a leader of the conservative populist revival. We’ll see what the future holds. But whatever happens, it will be quite a ride.