Commentary — September 17, 2008, 11:50 am

The Sweet Smell of Success: Coiffed and cutthroat, Sarah Palin gives us the story we’ve been looking for

Gemma Sieff is an assistant editor of Harper’s Magazine.

The Republicans have succeeded in pitting VP against P, inverting their ticket to leave McCain, with his cadaverously stiff bearing, and Biden, with his flaxen ducktail and car salesman’s smile, to stand aside and cluck mildly like chaperones while the younger candidates dance. What’s left is a fraught contest for prom queen.

Sarah Palin’s appeal does not inhere in the much-touted message that she’s Just Like You—it’s that she’s better, but not too much better, than you. She’s the popular girl, the barracuda with a pleasing face, who after ignoring you all year suddenly turns around and invites you to help her streamer the gymnasium and mix the punch. You’re floored! And fascinated. Maybe if you mimic how she does her hair (or invest in one of these, and copy her cute accessories), you’ll benefit from the spillover effects of her status. After all, she has filled her cabinet with her high school pals, and sycophants are welcome: be positive, prop her up, let her know how much she rocks. (Take a leaf from the book of Ivy Frye, a non-wonkish aide who wrote Palin this email.) Perhaps she’ll let you use the tanning bed she had installed in the governor’s mansion.

Luckily, Palin isn’t from Beverly Hills (or Beacon Hill). She’s from Alaska, and Alaskans, we are reminded, are familiar folks, only brawnier, earthier, fishier than the rest of us. They enact recognizable American traditions: Palin ably shoots and guts a moose, just as you hunt your humdrum deer (or shuffle around the supermarket). Todd Palin excels in Iron Dog snowmobile racing, the chillier version of NASCAR. She’s got a Fargo accent, only twangier; she’s a hockey—that’s Alaskan for “soccer”—mom. She out-Wild-Wests the ersatz Texan in Bush, confounds the Turner thesis (thereby allaying our end-of-empire frontier anxieties), and in this way inspires a particular kind of awe.

Barack Obama, in contrast, is less kookily endearing than simply foreign, and thus vaguely threatening. Witness Michelle Obama’s strenuous transformation to doting milquetoast; her favorite television show, as she told us recently, is The Brady Bunch. Nobody’s making luau jokes—it’s all about Kenya, Indonesia, and his Pantheresque pastor. As for achievement, Obama’s are so stellar and sure-footed as to inspire feelings of inadequacy. Without the leg-ups most presidential candidates take for granted—being wealthy, being WASPy, being white—and without much of a father, he did everything anyway, steadily bettering himself: Occidental College to Columbia to president of Harvard’s Law Review. His intelligence, his extemporaneous poise, and the sense that he has worked harder than many gifted people—all this conveys a success that’s earned and perfect, inaccessible, somehow intimidating.

Truly popular girls, on the other hand, aren’t perfect; they’d be “uppity” otherwise. Sarah Palin’s kids have problems? So do yours. Per Steve Schmidt’s exquisite double entendre, “life happens,” just like life has happened to you. But look at how she doesn’t let the knocks get her down. Maybe if you adopted some of her confidence, her unshakable (“You can’t blink,” Charlie) outlook, you’d improve your own lot. She gave her Wasilla hairdresser the same advice: stop whining about the beauty industry and “run for something!” You needn’t move to a big city where smug liberals drink $7 hemp-milk lattes, because it’s all about Attitude.

Americans like their success stories to stay local—that way we can identify the winner when she stops by the grocery store in her slightly newer car. We like to see evidence that They’re Just Like Us, fetching their dry-cleaning, pushing strollers of their peculiarly named children. With Obama and Palin, it boils down to basketball. Twenty-five years ago Sarah Palin led her high school team to the state championship by netting a critical free throw in the last moments of the game despite a cinematically broken ankle. As the underdog, Palin embodies wholesome teenage athleticism and sports movie cliché. Obama’s pinnacle basketball moment occurred just a few months ago, when he was visiting troops in Kuwait. Holding court on the court, he was tossed the ball, made a modest disclaimer, and swish—what The New Yorker called “the three-point shot heard round the world.”

The “elitism” with which he is so often charged is not about wealth or education, but about grace. It appears we like our leaders to rise to the occasion, like the limping Palin. Obama, on the other hand, keeps asking us to meet his standard, and perhaps all those elegant layups and lectures on American promise are too much for us to bear. One can only hope he starts smoking again.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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