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Taking Sides in the Palin-Maher Squirmish

March 30, 2011

From taxes and the First Amendment to Reagan's Iran/Contra scandal, how much energy her home state of Alaska produces and so much more, Sarah Palin doesn't know what she doesn't know. Regardless, the language comedian Bill Maher recently used to describe her shocking ignorance and incessant demagoguery is beyond the pale. His right-wing critics are absolutely right that his slurs have no place in American political discourse.
Now, conservatives just need to work on their own double-edged sexism. After all, when they aren't slamming the looks and personas of Democratic women, they are converting Republican politics into a beauty pageant.
As it turns out, Sarah Palin would-be defenders have a lot to answer for first. Two weeks ago, Dan Turner, the press secretary for Mississippi Governor and 2012 GOP White House hopeful Haley Barbour, resigned after joking about former Attorney General Janet Reno:

"It took longer to confirm her gender than to confirm her law license."

If that line sounds familiar, it should.
In 1998, Palin's future running mate John McCain quipped at a Republican event, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno." (McCain later apologized to Hillary and Bill Clinton, though not to Janet Reno.)
Nevertheless, in November 2007, McCain refused to admonish a campaign supporter who asked how Republicans would defeat Senator Clinton in the presidential race:

"How do we beat the bitch?"

If John McCain at least had the decency to respond, "I respect Senator Clinton," GOP strategist and CNN regular Alex Castellanos had no such qualms. When Jeffrey Toobin lamented the "level of sexism" in Hillary Clinton being referred to a "white bitch," Castellanos disagreed:

"If I can disagree, I think you're dead wrong. She's dead wrong. And I think she thinks her problem is she's a woman; her problem is she's Hillary Clinton. And some women, by the way, are named that and it's accurate. So, it's...She is -- she could -- she is a tough -- that tough lady, tough in politics, that's been her great strength. But let's face it, she can be a very abrasive, aggressive, irritating person, and a lot of voters, I think, see her that way."

But it's how the right-wing commentariat sees Sarah Palin that is particularly instructive. In a nutshell (and with apologies to decency and decorum), conservative women want to be her; conservative men want to do her.
Just ask Tucker Carlson. Earlier this month, the Daily Caller founder and Fox News regular tweeted, "Palin's popularity falling in Iowa, but maintains lead to become supreme commander of Milfistan." While he later apologized, Red State editor and CNN fixture Erick Erickson giggled, "I laughed then got out my passport."
Of course, Erickson wasn't so taken with First Lady Michelle Obama. As his new CNN colleague Howard Kurtz recalled for him:

The first lady, you wrote the following -- the headline was, "Is Obama shagging hookers behind the media's back?" And you write, "I assume not. I assume that Obama's Marxist harpy wife would go Lorena Bobbit on him should he even think about it."

Of course, when it comes to adolescent fawning over Sarah Palin, National Review editor Rich Lowry wins, well, hands down.
As you may recall, in October 2008 Lowry reported on his near orgasmic bliss watching Sarah Palin's debate performance against Joe Biden. The impact of a vice presidential candidate winking at him left a breathless Lowry weak at the knees:

I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, "Hey, I think she just winked at me." And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.

In November 2009, Lowry greeted the appearance of Palin's book by basking in her "roguish charm":

It's September 2008 all over again. All the same players are lining up to put a good hate on Sarah Palin. She's like an isotope designed to course throughout our politics and culture, lighting up press bias, self-congratulatory liberalism, Christianity-hating secularism, and intellectual condescension wherever they are found.
The contempt of her enemies only increases the ardor of her fans..

Among those fans is Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. During an appearance on the Don Imus show in February 2010, Wallace added his voice to the long list of Sarah Palin's willing objectifiers:

IMUS: When you interview her, will she be sitting on your lap? (LAUGHTER)
WALLACE: One can only hope. (LAUGHTER)

As Rich Lowry suspected, he's not alone. At the Weekly Standard, right-wing worker-bee Matthew Continettti has dedicated himself to protecting his queen. In his new tome, The Persecution of Sarah Palin, Continetti defends the "young, attractive, and pro-life conservative mom who connected with ordinary Americans" from the left's campaign of "distortion, exaggeration, fabrication, vilification, ridicule, and abuse." Disgusted that Palin on the one hand is branded a "true Stepford candidate," Continetti argues on the other:

If you had gone into a chemical laboratory to concoct a politician whose background and manner would sound liberal alarms, you probably would have come up with someone like Sarah Palin.

To be sure, given that opportunity the usual suspects among Palin's bathwater drinkers would be sure to manufacture a right-wing American version of Princess Diana. Rush Limbaugh, who in 1993 famously called the young Chelsea Clinton a "dog," blasted the likes of NBC's Andrea Mitchell for simply observing Sarah Palin is "not deeply read. She hasn't thought through a lot of these policies, and you have to do that." As he groused in July:

Okay, and I hear this from a lot of people on our side, too. Primarily women, primarily women. And I think many of them have been in Washington too long. "Lord knows she's attractive." That's the rub. That's the rub. Well, it's not the whole rub, but it's part of what grates on 'em. Trust me, my friends. Trust me. When your poster chick is Barbara Mikulski, you get the drift. When your poster chick is Nancy Pelosi. I don't care, pick one.

(To illustrate his point, Limbaugh features side-by-side photos of Sarah Palin and Democratic Rep. Barbara Mikulski.)
Republican operatives echoed Limbaugh words and tactics. That was mad abundantly clear in August, when the Republican Party of Minnesota's fifty-sixth Senate district debuted a web video proclaiming the GOP's women are "hotter" than their Democratic counterparts:

It leads with images of prominent Republicans such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin, and Michele Bachmann; the soundtrack, naturally, is the Tom Jones chestnut, "She's a Lady."
Then, there's an abrupt switch to the other side of the aisle. The theme is subtly conveyed with the strains of the Baha Men hit "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Photos of Michelle Obama, Janet Reno, Rosie O'Donnell and Hillary Clinton flash on the screen.

Palin's apparent sex appeal isn't limited to the men of the right. Ann Coulter, too, made clear that if loving Palin is wrong, she doesn't want to be Right:

The peculiarly venomous hatred of Palin is driven by women of the left and their whipped consorts. All that needs to happen is for a feminist to overhear two Nation readers saying, "I hate to admit it, but Palin is kind of hot" and ...
Democrats are a party of women, and nothing drives them off their gourds like a beautiful Christian conservative. (How much money has that other beautiful born-again, Carrie Prejean, been forced to spend on lawyers to respond to liberal hysteria?)

(Unsurprisingly, the public statements of Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean are virtually indistinguishable.)
In May 2009, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney laughed off Time magazine's selection of Sarah Palin as one of America's most influential people by pondering, "But was that the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people?" Perhaps prompted by that episode, that July Politico asked leading figures from the left and right "Are women in politics still routinely demeaned in the news media, or is it all about Sarah Palin?" (Grover Norquist argued that "Sarah Palin is not being attacked by the establishment media because she is a woman," but because she's a "possible leader of Reagan Republicanism.") Earlier this year, former Bush press secretary and new Obama appointee Dana Perino left no doubt where she stood on the question:

"There is a special burden for women in politics. And we saw that even for Hillary Clinton. And especially if you're an attractive woman and a conservative woman, then that burden is even greater."

As for Palin herself, she made clear in March 2008 that she had no patience for the whining of women candidates - like Hillary Clinton:

"Fair or unfair, I think she does herself a disservice to even mention it...When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism or, you know, maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, man, that doesn't do us any good. Women in politics, women in general wanting to progress this country. I don't think it's, it bodes well for her -- a statement like that...It bothers me a little bit hearing her bring that attention to herself on that level."

Only last week did Sarah Palin finally claim to be following her own advice. After years of complaining about the double-standard she claims to confront, Palin explained to Greta Van Susteren of Fox News:

"You know, I am through whining about a liberal press that holds, especially conservative women, to a different standard. Because it doesn't do me any good to whine about it."

Palin's will doubtless be the shortest-lived promise in American political history.
As for her heavy breathing supporters, Palin's transparent hypocrisy and stunning contradictions only deepen her hold over them. For the likes of Rich Lowry, no Palin transgression could wipe the starbursts from his eyes. No Palin failure could ever lead to a political divorce. Instead, the louder the objective criticism of grows, the more the right-wing objectification of her becomes.
But that won't make her President of the United States. Given Palin's sky-high disapproval ratings, that would require either divine intervention or, in John Heilemann's telling, a Michael Bloomberg third party candidacy in 2012.
But for all justifiable upset over Bill Maher's tasteless comments and the endless speculation about her White House prospects, it was Republican strategist Michael Murphy who months ago summed up Sarah Palin's hold on the conservative mind and its media mouthpieces alike:

"If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?"


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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