NPR logo Steve Jobs And Sarah Palin: Uniter Vs. Divider

Steve Jobs And Sarah Palin: Uniter Vs. Divider

A tribute to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on a MacBook at an Apple Store in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 6, 2011.

PARK JI-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption

A tribute to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on a MacBook at an Apple Store in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 6, 2011.


There seemed more than a little irony in Sarah Palin's announcement that she wouldn't be running for the presidency being eclipsed Wednesday evening by the death of the high-tech titan Steve Jobs.

Jobs was an iconic American figure, an authentic innovator and visionary who earned celebrity through the power of ideas transmuted into technology that changed society. He was the man who gave consumers products they didn't know they wanted then couldn't live without.

Palin, on the other hand, gave many Americans exactly what they wanted, a vigorous populist voice expressing their grievances about a nation they felt no longer worked for them, that was changing in ways they found troubling.

Sarah Palin, Sept. 5, 2011.

Stephan Savoia/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Stephan Savoia/AP

Sarah Palin, Sept. 5, 2011.

Stephan Savoia/AP

Of course, many other Americans figured they could live quite happily without her style of politics and questioned her readiness to be vice president in 2008 or president now.

With Jobs, whether it was the personal computer, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad or computer-animation, his insights remade the way millions, even billions of people interact with technology. Likened to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, he earned his place in the pantheon of American heroes.

Like those earlier innovators, his work generally united people. True, there was the famous PC versus Mac divide and, more recently, the iPhone versus Android divide.

But the productions of his fertile mind generally had the effect of closing distances between people, not widening them.

That was because, besides making it easier to for people to communicate, his products connected people across ideologies and incomes. Whether on the far right or far left, whether in the top or lowest tax bracket, you could possess and appreciate an Apple product.

The results of Palin's efforts can be said to be many things. Unifying typically isn't one of them.

Indeed, she established a place for herself in the nation's psyche as one of American politics' most divisive figures.

After bursting on the national scene in 2008 when Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain chose the then-Alaska governor to be his vice presidential running mate, Palin became one of the nation's foremost exponents of us-and-them politics.

And the divisions she surfed weren't just those of right and left. She riffed on the fissures within her own party. She was the "mavericky" political outsider who wouldn't play by the rules of the party's establishment.

Indeed, she maintained that pose until Wednesday evening, leaving open the possibility that she might be a late entry for the nomination though it seemed fairly obvious to many that such a move was most unlikely.

After all, she had made very few of the organizational moves you would expect from someone planning a presidential race. She hadn't signed on the necessary consultants and operatives, for instance.

Then there was the nettlesome, not insignificant problem that Republican voters consistently told pollsters they'd rather not have her run. It's fair to say that her performance as a candidate in 2008 and since had many people, Republicans included, questioning whether she had the knowledge and temperament for the White House.

In the end, the conjunction of the two Wednesday evening news events, Jobs' death and Palin's announcement that she was forswearing a presidential run, seemed, among other things, a contrast in two styles of celebrity in modern America.

Obviously, personal charisma helped propel both to the heights they eventually attained.

But Jobs' celebrity arose organically from sustained innovation that placed breakthrough products in the hands of consumers that changed in ways that feel lasting how people interact with technology and each other. His moment doesn't feel like it has passed even though he has.

Palin's, on the other hand, has seemed more like an artifact of McCain's 2008 campaign. Now that she has officially removed herself from the 2012 presidential race, it's only natural to question of how lasting her impact on the nation's politics will be.

She says she plans to stay engaged. And history informs us that people have a way of remaking themselves and their images. It happened in American business with Jobs who was up then out then in and up again at Apple. He went from being a bad manager to a great one.

And it's happened in American politics. Think Richard Nixon. Think Ronald Reagan.

Maybe her supporters will stick with her. Maybe she'll transform herself into an even more successful political figure than she is now, expanding her appeal.

But only time will tell whether she's the political equivalent of a Sony Walkman or an iPhone.