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.