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.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us if You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us if You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today