The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star
By Matthew Continetti
Hardcover, 256 pages
List price: $25.95
Prologue: The Palin Myth: From Hero to Harpy in Eight Short Weeks
One morning in the fall of 2008, Sarah Palin awoke to discover that she had been changed into a monster.
This was no Kafka story, however. As recently as late August of that year, Palin had been an extremely popular governor of Alaska, known to her constituents as a bipartisan reformer who championed clean government. Now, as John McCain's running mate, the world knew her instead as a heat-packing, moose-eating, wolf-hunting, makeup-wearing, idiotic, apocalyptic harpy. She had become a freak.
If you listened to Democrats and the mainstream media, you learned that Palin was a Buchananite (she wasn't), a member of the Alaskan Independence Party (nope), and a biblical literalist who believed dinosaurs roamed the earth several thousand years ago (an utter fabrication); that she was anti-contraception (incorrect), wanted to teach creationism in schools (not really), and didn't believe man may be contributing to global warming (untrue); that she banned books (a gross distortion), claimed she could see Russia from her house (never happened), faked her pregnancy (unbelievable), slept with her husband's business associate (a myth), thought the Iraq war was a mission from God (not so), and didn't know that Africa was a continent (baloney).
When they weren't mangling facts, the press did their best to undermine Palin's accomplishments. Reputable news outlets reported that she hadn't really sold her predecessor's jet, didn't actually stop the Bridge to Nowhere, inflated the importance of the natural gas pipeline that she had championed, cut funding for teenage moms and children with special needs, and never gave a press conference during the presidential campaign. This was all hokum.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Sarah Palin received much more negative coverage than she did positive. Those writers and communicators who were unconstrained by pretensions to objectivity went even further. Feminist activists denied Palin her womanhood because she did not share their politics. Comedians made fun of her accent, clothes, smarts, and looks. The same campaign operatives who had recommended Palin to John McCain turned on her, telling reporters (on background, of course) that Palin was an incompetent "diva" "hillbilly" who may have been suffering from postpartum depression.
Palin was routinely insulted and described in the crudest language. She has been called a "freak show," a "joke," an "extreme liability," a "turncoat b*tch," an "insult," a "fire-breather," "xenophobic," a "sitcom of a vice-presidential choice," a "disaster movie," a "shallow" person, "chirpy," a "provincial," a "disgrace to women" who was "as fake as they come," a "nauseating," "cocky wacko," a "jack in the box," "Napoleon in bunny boots," "extreme," "radical," a "vessel," a "farce," "Bush in drag," "not very bright," "utterly unqualified," a "bimbo," "Danielle Quayle," the "new spokesperson for bellicosity and confrontation," a "fatal cancer," "like a really bad Disney movie," "laughable," an "odd combination of Chauncey Gardiner from Being There and Marge from Fargo," "dangerous," a "bully," the "biggest demagogue in America," the "Paleolithic Princess of Parsimonious Patriotism," the "anti—Wonder Woman," "judgmental," "dictatorial" with a "superior religious self-righteousness," a "racist" who was "absurd," "scary," and a "token," a "bantamweight cheerleader," an "airhead," an "idiot," a "librarian in a porn film," a "Jesus freak," a "man with a vagina," a "big reactionary," a "maniac," a "whore," a "two-bit caricature culled from some cutting-room-floor episode of Roseanne," a "symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States," the "tawdriest, most half-a**ed fraud imaginable," a "character too dumb even for daytime TV," a "puffed-up dimwit with primitive religious beliefs," "totally nuts," "bonkers," an "ex-beauty queen governor on the job only twenty months, fanatically anti-abortion and pro-gun," "much worse than ridiculous," "insulting," a "train wreck," an "incompetent," a "snarling b*tch," a "compulsive, repetitive, demonstrable liar," an "[expletive deleted] psychopath," a "religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus," "political slime," a "mean, brain-dead rat," a "bad mother" who "often seems proud of what she does not know," the "Carmela Soprano of the GOP," a "Drama Queen," a "Republican blow-up doll" who "ideologically" is "their hardcore pornographic centerfold spread," an "opportunistic anti-female," a "true Stepford candidate, a cyborg," a "quitter," and—this list is by no means exhaustive—a "bonbon."
The reaction to Sarah Palin was visceral, nasty, and unrelenting. "Our state was inundated with opposition researchers trying to dig up dirt, the Democratic blogosphere up here making stuff up," Palin told me during an interview for the Weekly Standard in July 2009. Widespread ignorance about her biography and accomplishments did not prevent the pundits from declaring that they knew precisely what Palin was all about. The response to her presence was not intellectual; it was emotional. When Palin arrived on the national scene, the people who loved her did not have enough information on which to base their love, and the people who hated her did not have the information on which to base their hatred. Something else, something psychological, was going on.
Sarah Palin could not be more unlike her public caricature. When she became John McCain's running mate, she was neither a party-line Republican nor a movement conservative. She is an unpredictable and courageous politician who has the ability to identify situations where the public is out of sync with the establishment, from conservatives tired of nonpartisan municipal management in Wasilla, Alaska, to Alaskans angry at corruption and apathy in Juneau, to—potentially—Americans upset at the Obama Democrats' big-spending, over-regulating agenda.
Throughout her professional life, Sarah Palin has challenged the dominant power structure and overturned the accepted, elite narrative of the way things ought to be. Her town establishment said that Wasilla is a place where a sales tax will solve everyone's problems, and partisan and ideological politics do not matter. Palin argued otherwise. Her state establishment declared that Juneau ought to be run by a cozy network of Republican lawmakers and energy interests. Palin didn't think so. The media establishment decreed that Barack Obama was going to rescue the country from eight years of George W. Bush. Palin threw a wrench into Obama's plans.
The left has tried to bar Sarah Palin from running for higher office and seeks to delegitimize her. When Palin became a national figure, she also became a threat to liberal aspirations. Here was a young, attractive, and pro-life conservative mom who connected with ordinary Americans. What the left did in response was launch a campaign of distortion, exaggeration, fabrication, vilification, ridicule, and abuse. Here is how senior Democrats greeted Sarah Palin's nomination, according to Monica Langley in the November 5, 2008, Wall Street Journal:
The Obama campaign watched her rousing performance at the Republican convention and focus groups assembled to test the voter reaction. Obama advisers couldn't believe what they were hearing. "Sarah Palin is one of us" was an oft-heard refrain. "She can help John McCain shake up Washington" was another common theme.
On his weekly strategy call with Democratic senators after the Republican convention in early September, Obama Chief of Staff Jim Messina began, "Let me walk you through this week's events." He was cut off by angry senators calling for a more aggressive response to the Republican running-mate pick: "Go after Palin." "Define Palin." "Make the race about Palin." Mr. Messina was startled by the new nervousness in the party ranks.
And so began the persecution of Sarah Louise Palin.
The Feral Beast
The resistance to Palin has always been fierce. At every stage in her career, she has been belittled and underestimated. The critics have said that she doesn't have enough experience, that she misses the finer points of policy, that she runs haphazard campaigns. And yet more often than not Palin has won. She has crushed her opponents. An Anchorage businessman, no fan of Palin, said it well: "Sarah is a great warrior," he told me.
There was a time when the media appreciated Palin's political skill. The October 15, 2007, edition of Newsweek contained an article about two up-and-coming Western governors: Democrat Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Republican Sarah Palin of Alaska. "[G]overnors like Napolitano, 49, and Palin, 43, are making their mark with a pragmatic, postpartisan approach to solving problems," Karen Breslau wrote, "a style that works especially well with the large numbers of independent voters in their respective states."
Breslau briefly profiled both women. "In Alaska," she wrote, "Palin is challenging the dominant, sometimes corrupting, role of oil companies in the state's political culture . . . Although she has been in office less than a year, Palin, too, earns high marks from lawmakers on the other side of the aisle." What makes the article striking is its positive tone. It was one of the few times Sarah Palin ever received balanced and net-favorable coverage in the mainstream media.
By September 2008, however, the atmosphere surrounding Palin was quite different. "Alaska's young governor is as riven with contradictions and complexities as the state itself, " the Newsweek staff wrote in the magazine's September 15, 2008 issue, in an article to which Karen Breslau contributed reporting. "A devoted mother, Palin is now running for national office, exposing her young family to the warping effects of international scrutiny. A reformer, she faces allegations of exerting improper influence in city and state government. A self-styled regular Red State gal, she is relentlessly driven, a politician of epic ambition who is running against a Washington establishment that, if elected, she will inevitably join, and even rule over. "
Yet Newsweek was identifying contradictions that did not actually exist.
On September 22, the feminist author Naomi Wolf posted a paranoid and malicious screed on the Huffington Post that was typical of the way left-wing writers talked about Sarah Palin after she secured the Republican vice presidential nomination. "I believe the Rove-Cheney cabal is using Sarah Palin as a stalking horse, an Evita figure, to put a popular, populist face on the coming police state and be the talk show hostess for the end of elections as we know them," Wolf wrote. "If McCain-Palin get in, this will be the last true American election. She will be working for Halliburton, KBR, Rove and Cheney into the foreseeable future—for a decade perhaps—a puppet 'president' for the same people who have plundered our treasure, are now holding the US economy hostage and who murdered four thousand brave young men and women in a way [sic] of choice and lies. . . . Under the coming Palin-Rove police state, you will witness the plans now under way to bring Iraqi troops to patrol the streets of our nation."
How did Palin metamorphose from being the poster girl for "a pragmatic, postpartisan approach" to being the "popular, populist face on the coming police state"? The answer has partly to do with culture and partly to do with technology. If you had gone into a chemical laboratory to concoct a politician whose background and manner would sound liberal alarms, you probably would have come up with someone like Sarah Palin. For this reason, the response to Palin was similar to the reaction liberals had to George W. Bush. The left recoils at a certain swagger, a manner of speech, and a lack of cultural embarrassment that the two share. Neither Bush nor Palin mind the fact that they are not part of this country's cognoscenti. But until Palin showed up, one could have written off the liberal reaction to Bush as simply anti-Texan bias. That wasn't it, however. Palin proved that at its root the reaction to these folksy Western politicians is a form of anti-provincialism; a distaste for those who hail from outside America's coastal metropolises; a revulsion toward people who do not aspire to adopt the norms, values, politics, and attitudes of the Eastern cultural elite.
Over the course of the Bush presidency, American liberals constructed a vast and complicated machinery of demonization and hatred. Democratic politicians, progressive think tanks, and liberal blogs did all they could to portray Republicans, Bush in particular, as dangerous, extreme, ignorant, dishonest, and corrupt. The mainstream media became more partisan and embittered and recklessly exposed national security secrets on their front pages and nightly newscasts. The Internet, a medium that specializes in fomenting primitive rumor and venomous group-think, sensationalized facts, tarred reputations, and allowed disgruntled liberals to contrive conspiracies and vent absurdities for the sole purpose of bringing Bush and the conservatives to heel. The mainstream media took their cues from the partisan and vitriolic blogosphere. As Tony Blair put it in a June 12, 2007, speech at the Reuters headquarters in London, "Today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."
The beast indisputably took sides in the 2008 election. Let Oprah tell it: "He is The One!" she cried in December 2007. "He is The One! . . . Barack Obama!" On MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews in the summer of 2009, Newsweek writer Evan Thomas likened Obama to God. The media clearly favored Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and over John McCain in the general election. Obama is their guy. And when the beast saw Sarah Palin appear out of thin air and captivate the American imagination, it tore her apart. The hate machine whirred and hummed and swung into high gear.
Lies became facts, the smarmiest allegations jumped to Page One, and anybody who had something horrible to say about Sarah Palin was handed a megaphone and told to speak as loudly as possible. Wherever the Palin-haters gathered, they flaunted their contempt. Anything that complicated their prearranged story was shunted aside. Bias, inaccuracy, and self-obsession ruled the day. The pack became frenzied. Rabid. They did not miss a single opportunity to slight Palin. They could not leave her alone—even after the election was over and their preferred candidate had won; even after Palin resigned her office in July 2009.
This is a book about how the feral beast hunted down its prey.
And how she fought back.
Excerpted from The Persecution of Sarah Palin. Published by Sentinel. Copyright Matthew Continetti, 2009.