Lost in Translation
Why Sarah Palin really quit us.
When America is finally ready to reckon with the phenomenon that was Sarah Palin, I suspect we will discover that whatever she represents actually had less to do with her gender, class, or ideology than we now believe. It's easy to look at the soon-to-be-former governor of Alaska as an iconic feminist, a path-breaking working mother, or noble rabble-rousing populist. But when the dust settles, the lesson may be that she was simply a woman who made no sense. Her meteoric rise and dubious fall will say less about America than you think, beyond the fact that America likes its politicians to communicate their ideas clearly. We will someday come to realize that while it's all well and good to be mavericky with one's policies, it's never smart to be mavericky with one's message.
Whatever you may think of Sarah Palin, she's widely celebrated as a rare and perhaps raw political talent. She's gorgeous, charismatic, warm, and funny. She has a remarkable ability to connect with her listeners. But—with the exception of a well-scripted performance at the Republican National Convention—it's tough to find an extemporaneous Palin speech, statement, or tweet that contains a coherent message. From her acceptance speech last August in Dayton, Ohio, when McCain first tapped her as a running mate, to her circular and swooping prime-time interviews, Palin's political skill lies in selling a persona but not a message. And in the end, this may explain why she quit.
Palin's completely inscrutable resignation speech last week was only the most recent example of a lengthy political communication from her that explained nothing, clarified nothing, and expounded upon nothing, save for the fact that she speaks in riddles and koans. Watch it as many times as you like; you still come away feeling you've been treated to a cozy chat with the Mad Hatter. The media are bad. Those ethics complaints are expensive. Alaska was a great idea. She is not a dead fish. Put it all together and what do you get? A born fighter who has given us no sense whatsoever of what she's fighting for.
Had Palin simply quit without giving a press conference, there might have been a lesson in this exercise. Feminists would be free to say there are double standards for women, and conservatives could argue she was too visionary for her time. But Palin's act of explaining her resignation to us in a torrent of unconnected sentence fragments left everyone wondering, What was the point of Sarah Palin? If she cannot even communicate a simple idea ("I'm quitting because …"), why should we care that she's quitting?
That's why the strangest part of the Sarah Palin saga will always be her loathing of the media. She never failed to remind us that she didn't like being "filtered." She only wanted to talk directly to us, her listeners. Yet the reason Sarah Palin continues to have any kind of political force at all in this country is because of the media "filter." The media helped refine and define her Dada statements and arguments into something that briefly sounded like a coherent worldview. Yesterday morning, Gov. Palin excoriated Andrea Mitchell for "not listening to me" in an NBC interview. You have to go back and watch the clip before you can apprehend that Mitchell was indeed listening. It was Palin who was speaking in half-expressed thoughts and internal contradictions.
It's too easy to characterize Sarah Palin as an irrational bundle of bristling grievance. But I think it's more complicated than her simple love for playing the victim all the time. If you think of Palin as someone who never felt herself to be fully heard or understood, not truly politically realized in the eyes of the American public, her rage toward the country, the media, and those of us who fail to love and understand her is easier to comprehend. Think of an American visiting France who believes that if he just speaks louder, he will be speaking French. Palin has done everything in her power to explain herself to us, and still we fail to appreciate what she is all about. I'd be frustrated, too, if I thought I was offering up straight talk and nobody was getting the message. Especially if I held a degree in communications.
Once you understand that Palin's only actual message is the importance of loving and understanding Palin, it becomes easier to understand why she quit. The more Palin tries to explain herself, the more we all fail to get her. Every time she goes off script, she makes less sense. No wonder she didn't want to do debate prep or be coached by the McCain communications team. Instead of thanking those who packaged, explained, and spun her, Palin resents them. And because she believes she has been crystal clear all along, she's come to resent us, too. The enduring political lesson of Sarah Palin may simply be that for most of her political career she's been lost in translation, without fully appreciating that only in translation was she ever, briefly found.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.