Politics pulses with gossip, as gossip does with sex; add in celebrity, and it was inevitable that Sarah Palin would find herself first on the cover of National Enquirer and now as the subject of a concatenation of rumor, tattered fact and tetchy opinion that mirrors her own trade in attention-getting.
The “revelations” of sexual romps and recreational drug use in Joe McGinniss’s new book, The Rogue, are unlikely to translate into much. Sex—or, if you like, sizzle—is what catapulted Palin to national politics in the first place. John McCain didn’t need to sew up Alaska, the gun vote or even the God people with his vice presidential choice; he needed pizazz, to bring vigor to his old bones and compete with the celebrity machine whirring around Barack and Michelle Obama. Palin’s right-wing boosters would sputter at the suggestion that she is the only running mate in US history to have been chosen primarily for her sexual energy, but they were the first to gush over her as “a babe,” a MILF (or GILF), a “smoking-hot chick”; and she repaid their longings in fitted black leather with Todd by her side. A party-time past can’t hurt her now with the men who fantasize about her, the women who want to be her or the Christians who know life is one long battle against temptation. The most that such stories can do (besides taint McGinniss as a man awfully eager to see scandal in interracial sex) is strengthen Palin’s case for not doing what she shows no sign of wanting to do: take a cut in pay, fun and unaccountable influence by running for president.
She’s no dummy. Even if she were powerfully inclined, the show has moved on. The country that a few years ago yearned to be seduced now just wants to be saved. In the iconography of American exceptionalism embraced by her party, a gun-playing, independent Annie Oakley might shame weaker men and stoke up a crowd, but saving the homestead is a job for a cowboy.
This past summer national right-wing radio hosts and their local imitators did not outright endorse Rick Perry (unless they’re from Texas), but all their talk leads to him. America is in peril because it has gone soft, the argument runs, with a president who apologizes to the world, a people who whine, a nanny government. The Chinese are poised to swoop down, the Arabs already have, and here we are, a country full of women, pampered with extended unemployment benefits. It’s 1979 the rerun, with Obama as Carter, the only question being who will be our Gipper, the real man in a checked shirt and neckerchief, riding a white horse and raising us from this grip of crisis, humiliation, unions, sissies and malaise?
Mark Belling, a windbag from Wisconsin who sat in for Rush Limbaugh in August, devoted an entire show to the unmanning, or “chickification,” of America. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, he allowed, were more manly than most men—what male politician would shoot a caribou on national television? he asked—but otherwise he spat out “woman” like a slur. The rhetoric, seeded in 2008 by right-wing talk of Obama as “a little bitch,” and fortified last year in taunts by Palin, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell that their male adversaries “man up” and “put your man pants on,” can be fulfilled only one way.
Rick Perry jogs and packs a pistol in his shorts because he is afraid of snakes. He shot a coyote, he says, to save a puppy. It will have to do.
If Perry didn’t exist, America would have to create him, and so, in a sense, it has. He wasn’t always the Marlboro Man. He grew up lonely on a dirt farm in West Texas, “one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen,” he’s said, but also “one of the most desolate, brutal, uninviting and uninspiring places.” He couldn’t say where the closest male his age might have lived, and played mainly with only his dog and Shetland pony. He met his wife, the wan Anita, at a piano recital while in grade school, asked her on a date at 16 and married her sixteen years later. In between, he played high school football and joined Future Farmers of America, posing with the latter for a yearbook photo in a manner that evokes James Dean and anticipates the Village People. At Texas A&M he was a terrible student, over his head in animal science and happier as a cheerleader in white ducks and navy sweater, or as a member of the Corps of Cadets in high leather boots with spurs and hair like Justin Bieber’s. He joined the Air Force out of college and “wrestled with God,” finally giving in because there was nowhere left to turn. But the Lord let Rick wander in the wilderness a while longer, a small-time legislator, a Democrat who backed Carter over Reagan, Al Gore over Michael Dukakis or Jesse Jackson. It wasn’t until his first statewide campaign, in 1989, as a freshly minted Republican running for Texas agriculture commissioner, that Perry settled into the identity he has today.
In the emblematic ad of that campaign Perry enters a stable in the hazy morning light. He’s wearing jeans and buckskin chaps, a denim jacket and a white cowboy hat. He leaves the stable with a looped rope and approaches his steed. He looks good on a horse, at ease sitting back after his ride and almost like the man with a smoke when the steam from his coffee mug curls away from his pensive but not unkind face.
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Ad executives say there is still nothing like a man on a horse to convey a simple message of strength. In the 1950s when Philip Morris was looking to rebrand Marlboros from a “Mild as May” ladies’ cigarette to something more robust, the image genius Leo Burnett sat around with his ad men brainstorming. “What’s the most masculine symbol you can think of?” he asked. “And right off the top of his head,” Burnett later recalled, “one of these writers spoke up and said, ‘A cowboy.’ And I said, ‘That’s for sure.’” The year he was introduced, in 1955, total sales of Marlboros increased more than 3,000 percent, and the Marlboro Man was on his way to becoming what the advertising industry voted the most potent commercial icon of the twentieth century. Across the years, and now again in his ads, Perry appears in silhouette on horseback, solid and still against the setting sun, an image lifted almost whole from the cigarette ads.
There will be time to excavate Perry’s record and inconsistencies: the 1.4 million Texans who sank into poverty during his tenure as against the 1 million added jobs; the country’s lowest high school graduation rate as against its highest number of prisoners and executions; the persistent boasts of success as against the persistent ranking as Number 1 or Number 2 in people who are uninsured and children who are hungry; the broadsides against federal stimulus dollars as against the state’s distinction as the greatest beneficiary of them.
Maybe it will matter, but maybe not. Those cries from the right-wing airwaves, the panicked references to American weakness and sapped masculinity, represent something real. It is the anxiety of white men, unsure of their future in a country that officially became minority majority this year; the fear of workers, of whatever color or persuasion, who feel—who know—they are superfluous, and maybe their children too, but don’t know what to do about it; the uneasiness, and not just among whites or right-wingers, of people who see everywhere the signs of a declining empire. But the truth can’t be spoken and the lies don’t satisfy.
Back in the 1880s and ’90s, when the cowboy was first called upon to calm a land made anxious by the dislocations of industrialism, city life, women in the workforce, sexual danger and destabilized masculinity, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show regularly featured a tableau of the humble log cabin, the unarmed American family beset by half-naked Indians and saved at the last minute by white men on horseback. In real life, the cowboy was finished by that time and so were the Indians, the frontier closed, the open land bought or stolen. The cowboy cult flourished as illusion, and even in New York City the Wild West show played to enthusiastic, sold-out crowds.
At this point in the game, it is hard to imagine the Republicans nominating anyone but Rick Perry. Symbolism isn’t everything, but sometimes it’s enough.