Will the media ever tire of looking into the death of Sarah Palin's political career?

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 07/16/2009

In the short time since her odd and still unexplained resignation, most journalists will admit that Sarah Palin will never, ever be President of the United States, let alone launch anything vaguely resembling a successful bid for the nomination.  Nonetheless, Americans can expect a summer full of repetitive, insipid media improv on the theme, "What caused the political death of Sarah Palin?"  The fact is, few in the media can resist a ripping good political autopsy, and Sarah Palin inspires the best postmortem politics this country has seen in decades.

Bright Lights, Big Campaign
The first whiff of postmortem Palinology started right after her resignation "speech."  Catching up with the Governor on an amateurishly staged "traditional family fishing outing," during which Palin donned size XXL red rubber gloves, yanked at nets, and gazed off square-jawedly into the 10:00pm Alaska sunshine.  Dressed smartly in Weather Channel hand-me-downs, Andrea Mitchell had the scoop and used it to officially kick of the political autopsy:

MITCHELL:  Some people said you saw the bright lights of the national campaign and you came back, and it was very hard to readjust to the nitty gritty work of being--

PALIN:  The "nitty gritty," like, you mean the fish slime and the dirt under the fingernails and stuff that is me.

MITCHELL: No, no, no.  Juneau:  The state capital.  The hard, legislative slog.

PALIN:  No...that's not...I am a fighter. I thrive on challenge.

(full video here)

Palin's plan, clearly, was to clean up her public image with a generous application of "fish slime and dirt under the fingernails and stuff," which she assures Mitchell is her true self. But Mitchell would have none of it.  The forensic pathologist performs the autopsy, not the corpse. So, Mitchel pushes a "bright lights, big campaign" theory of Palin's failure, asking her to comment on what "some people said."

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Putting aside for a moment Palin's weak attempt to reinvent her family as common fisher folk, Mitchell's theory of a rural state governor being overwhelmed--politically crippled--by her short time on the national stage does not hold much water.   Is Mitchell really claiming that Palin was a strong and capable leader until--zap! The bright lights, big sounds, and big audiences of the national stage made her reticent and weak?  It makes little sense.

Realistically, the failed logic in Mitchell's theory of Palin's political death mattered little in the interview.   Mitchell's shoreline examination was seized as an opportunity to whip up the forensic frenzy. And the Today Show, where the interview premiered, likely saw a bump up in its dailies as a result of the effort.

Show Me The Money!
Andrea Mitchell's "Dances With Fish" interview showcased the willingness of the elite-of-the-elite in the broadcast media to roll up their sleeves and stick their hands right into the guts of the Palin political corpse.  The Associated Press then took it down to the mucky depths.

In a recent AP piece filed by Mary Pemberton, once-and-future son-in-law Levi Johnson is cited as the lone source of the theory that makes it into the article's headline:  "Palin Resigned Because of Money."

Suffice it say that citing a talking fish as a source would be more credible than Levi Johnson, particularly since Johnson is working on a tell-all book about the month (one whole month) he claims to have lived with the Palin family: "Johnston says he lived with the Palin family from early December to the second week in January."

After laying out Johnson's impeccable credentials as an expert in postmortem Palinology, Pemberton then gives the lad full license to expound at length, yielding this expansive insight:

"I think the big deal was the book. That was millions of dollars," said Johnston, who has had a strained relationship with the family but now says things have improved.

(full story)

Sure.  That settles it, then.  Looks like Johnson is also suffering from the aftershock of the bright lights.

One has to wonder,  here, not just about the writing of an article that cites a disgruntled not-quite-son-in-law with a book contract as an expert, but also about the perilous journey the piece must have made through the entire editing and fact checking system of one of the world's most sterling contributors to the daily news fact base.  Editors, fact-checkers--interns--all must have seen this quote from Johnson and signed off on the piece. 

The Horror, The Horror
Pieces like the AP Levi Johnson post get published for a simple reason:  Once the postmortem gravy train gets rolling, what passes as a credible "expert" on the dead political career in question can range from the ridiculous to the absurd.   Kiss-and-tell boyfriends? Other Presidential candidates?  A Salmon caught on the family outing? If it can offer up a timely sound byte on the demise of Palin--why the heck not.

And thus, lacking any further comment from the fish: enter Mike Huckabee.

"In a primary this is going to be an issue she'll have to face. Will she be able to withstand the pressure?" Thus spoke Huckabee, who went on to declare that Palin's political corpse will rise again.  Without pause, dozens of respected journalists quoted him--as if Huckabee were in anyway qualified to comment on Sarah Palin.   Huckabee's comment was a transparent attempt to use the story to remind the public that he was going to run for president, but for now he was play acting as a forensic anthropologist.

Huckabee and Johnson aside, though, the standout Palin postmortem to date was an op-ed penned by Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street journal ("A Farewell To Harms"). 

The sense one gets from reading Noonan's analysis of Palin is similar to what one might feel if famed French gastronome, Curnonsky, had published an op-ed decrying the culinary horror of a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. "Mon dieu!"

"Horror" is precisely the word that Noonan lights upon to describe--not so much the political career of Sarah Palin--but her own feelings when listening to Sarah Palin perform political rhetoric (Noonan's "horrifying" punchline comes at the end of a long set up):

In television interviews she was out of her depth in a shallow pool. She was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions, and sometimes in knowing them. She couldn't say what she read because she didn't read anything. She was utterly unconcerned by all this and seemed in fact rather proud of it: It was evidence of her authenticity. She experienced criticism as both partisan and cruel because she could see no truth in any of it. She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough. Her presentation up to the end has been scattered, illogical, manipulative and self-referential to the point of self-reverence. "I'm not wired that way," "I'm not a quitter," "I'm standing up for our values." I'm, I'm, I'm.

In another age it might not have been terrible, but here and now it was actually rather horrifying.

Why did Sarah Palin fail as a politician?  Because, old chap, there just are not enough gin gimlets in the world to get us through one more minute of her rambling.  Distasteful stuff.

Noon's op-ed is little more than a high-brow Palin autopsy for the investor class. To her credit (Noonan is no slouch), she deftly dismisses 99% of the other theories of Palin's demise floating about in the media.  What remains, however, is a very odd notion:  if Noonan finds Palin distasteful, that alone can serve as an explanation for her downfall.  As if to lend her theory more credibility, Noonon also admits that she found George W. Bush dreadful, too.  There's never enough gin when you need it.

Dying, Dying...Alive
It is not hard to predict where all this is heading, even if staring into the political crystal ball does not sell quite as many tickets as staring into a political corpse on a slab.

Having hit journalistic rock-bottom, postmortem Palinology will now make the rounds on the late night comedy shows.  We can expect her reappearance on Saturday Night Live and Mad TV, if not a long term stay on each.  She will make cameos in those farcical movies that make fun of other movies, and show up in a couple thousand YouTube videos.

The postmortem banter will continue through the summer, die down a bit, then re-emerge with a vengeance with the publication of books by Levi Johnson and Palin herself.  Suffice it to say that every book published about Palin from this point out will contribute to the general postmortem theme. 

I am 100% confident in predicting that Sarah Palin's own postmortem on herself--her book--will return to the theme she pushed on Andrea Mitchell:  fish slime.  Palin's own theory of what caused her political death will no doubt be that politics took her too far away from her true, trawling self.  This daughter of a school secretary and a high school coach, will spend hundreds of pages making the case that she has family roots in the simple life of throwing a net into the water and pulling it back.  Her true love, she will assure us, was always the people and the land of Alaska.  Politics might have dirtied her image, but there is nothing she likes more than dirt under her nails.

I guess some of the dead do tell lies after all.

Is postmortem politics bad for the media or bad for anything else?  One could say it is bad in that by its sheer volume it keeps other stories out of the public mind.   Ask 100 Americans this week what the word "Uighur" means, and there is a good chance some will ask, "Is it a kind of fish?"  Ask those same 100 what "public option" refers to and a few more might be following the story enough to explain it.  Many Americans for sure are following the important news about ethnic strife in China's provinces or the healthcare debate here at home.  The postmortem Palin coverage does not silence these stories, but they are harder to follow with so much Palin, Palin, Palin pumping through the political media.

The other harm is that the vast amount of money that can be made by churning a good political postmortem story is enough to lead people to strange conclusions.  Despite a dead career, Sarah Palin  might just choose to insert herself back into politics if her book sells, say, 5 million copies.  Or she might get an offer for a radio show, which would add her voice to the drumbeat of right-wing political talk radio.

Time will tell, but one thing is for sure:  Palin has a lot more dying to do in the media if she ever wants to come back from the dead.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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