Finally, my few words about Sarah Palin. When I heard that she had decided to quit the Alaska governor's office with 18 months left on her term, I'll be honest with you, my first thought was, which kid was sick and with what? Was it strep, was it flu, a fever that wouldn't go down, a cough that just wouldn't go away?
Can I just tell you? I do not know a single working mother who does not dream at some point, even if just for a minute, about packing up that desk and heading for the homestead, even if that fantasy is about as realistic as the one about supplementing unemployment with Powerball winnings. And I bet that's why so many mothers, who work outside the home or not, were rooting for Sarah Palin, at least at first.
Whether you shared her politics or not, Palin was somebody you wanted to see in the game, trying as she was to balance a very demanding job with the equally demanding job of raising five children and maintaining a decent relationship with her husband. She seemed to have so many attractive qualities. She seemed practical, honest, unfazed and down-to-earth, exactly the qualities people hope newcomers in general and hopefully women will bring to public life. And she is making no judgment at all about the whole campaign shopping spree thing, stylish, which I for one appreciate.
But then for some reason, maybe it was the glare of the national spotlight, maybe she was that way all along, Palin seemed to morph pretty quickly out of Superwoman into just another Mean Girl — ridiculing people who don't make the same choices she does, and then crying about it when the rest of the world bit her back.
It started at the Republican National Convention, where she trashed Barack Obama and community organizers in general, saying that as a small-town mayor she was just like them except she had actual responsibilities. Now she's decided to chuck those responsibilities, but she still wants to, as she said in her farewell announcement, have an impact on public debate. So what does that make her? A community organizer? She complained about the unwelcome attention she has received since she joined the national ticket, while conveniently forgetting that much attention has been provoked by her own choices and behavior.
Now I'll be interested to see how conservatives react to Palin's decision. Her philosophical bedfellows are quick to accuse racial and ethnic minorities of whining when they complain that institutional barriers, long-standing social networks and long-held prejudices about what they can do still play too big a role in their life chances ... witness the gloating about the recent Supreme Court case involving that New Haven firefighter's promotional exam.
So what now do they say to Palin's complaints about how she was treated by the Republican establishment, the national media, as well as the overall nastiness of the political environment? Conservatives have little patience for feminists who argue that the deck is stacked against women of childbearing age, that our assumptions about how work and family life should be organized make it very difficult for women — especially those with kids still at home — to have the kinds of careers ambitious men take for granted. What, then, do they say about the questions Palin was pressured to answer that none of her male competitors are ever asked, about how she'd balance her public duties with her private ones?
Like everybody else interested in politics, I am dying to know what Palin does next. But I particularly want to know if her time in the hot seat has left her with any more compassion than she has demonstrated to this point about how hard it can be for so many other people to put a life together. And even more important, I'd like to know what ideas she has about how to make things better for the next Sarah Palin.