Who said Sarah Palin doesn’t read? In September 2008, I wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Mark Burnett—the creator of Survivor and the father of reality television—had become the Republicans’ intellectual god as the GOP had grasped, with something like creative genius, the fact that in contemporary American democracy authority had to be humbled before it could lead.
And here is Sarah Palin’s new reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, produced by Burnett, in which Palin makes a point of humbling herself, again and again: professing fear as she is stuck halfway up a glacier she is attempting to climb; shooting skeet and missing while mistakenly ejecting a shell into her face; insulted for her “prom hair” by daughter Bristol; losing to her husband, Todd, in a kayak race. Cleaning fish blood and guts off the bottom of a fishing boat, she mocks herself: “All diva all the time.” At one point in this weekly portrayal of her family’s summertime expeditions, she exclaims, “I was so cocky, I’m being punished for it.”
The remarkable thing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska is that even as you recoil from her smarmy asides about the importance of family, repeated with mechanical coldness many times each episode, you find yourself moved by some of the most deliberately scripted, patently insincere scenes in the history of modern entertainment.
The entire staff of The New York Review of Books could not but melt when Todd picks up their son Trig, who has Down syndrome, and the child laughs that self-devouring, self-delighted laugh of little boys as his father carries him into the house. There is nothing more humbling than a son or daughter hurt by nature beyond love’s repair. Several times, Palin uses the wilderness backdrop to make the point that “Mother Nature” always wins. In that regard, the entire series is devoted to illustrating survivalist profiles in courage. The Palins zip around in small death traps as Sarah reminds us that Alaska “leads the country in [small-plane] fatalities.” Still, they must fly. Ferocious-seeming brown bears approach their canoe. Still, they must fish. We are told that climbers routinely fall into crevasses that are several hundred feet deep. Still, they must ascend.
And liberals still don’t get the Palin appeal, especially liberal women, perhaps because she is the hard-working female professional’s worst nightmare: the cunning, amoral sylph who uses her sexual appeal to get what she doesn’t deserve. In The New Yorker, the usually superb Nancy Franklin watches Sarah Palin’s Alaska and throws up her hands: “I can’t say what Palin is really up to with this show.”
Palin might well run for president, but she would never win. She is too thin-skinned, self-centered and ill-informed. And despite her storytelling and image-making capacities, she cannot hide the earthy, homely, everyday fact that her own social type in the grand human narrative is that of The Bitch. At one point in her show, a fisherman puts the still-beating heart of a halibut in her hand. It is a strange, wondrous, unsettling thing. Palin looks at it for an instant and then tosses it indifferently overboard. “Too weird,” she says. Her own heart is that of a shallow teenaged girl. She is Paris Hilton with sled dogs. Her political destiny is to be a sometimes-consequential political outlier.
But a political figure with Sarah Palin’s mythmaking talents and common touch, yet without her deficiencies … that would be a whole different story. Mock her appeal at your peril.