When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, hunting entered the national conversation in a way it hasn't since 2006, when Dick Cheney shot a donor instead of a quail. Palin, in fashioning herself as a leader for Joe Six-Pack America, has emphasized her prowess as a sportswoman. Her office has released photos of her with a dead moose, a dead caribou, and several dead salmon. She was recently spotted in Pennsylvania carrying a tote bag with the logo "Real Women Hunt Moose." One bowhunting company was so excited (or shameless) that it introduced a new model called the Sarah-Cuda in honor of the governor. Love the pink camo.
While Palin and Cheney are both hard-nosed Republicans, they represent different aspects of the hunting tradition. Cheney, who favors canned hunts on private game reserves, shoots his beasts in the manner of aristocrats. Palin, gutting moose in her neighbor's basement, is an heir to the "potlatch" hunters of the Colonial era, who wanted meat for the cabin table. When Palin was running for governor in 2006, she told USA Today, "We hunt as much as we can, and I'm proud to say our freezer is full of wild game we harvested here in Alaska." And if you look twice at the reasons why Palin hunts, they resemble an ideal cherished by city-dwelling, New York Times-reading folks. Sarah Palin is a locavore, harvesting meat from her local "foodshed."
She's also, of course, trying to harvest votes. Hunting has been a useful political symbol since Teddy Roosevelt. When Field & Stream posted Palin's hunting and fishing photos on its Web site, high-fives broke out among the assembled commenters. "You don't find people in Washington who would be seen with their hands on a bloody caribou," one wrote, while another dreamed, "Maybe if elected there's hope she will convert the White House pool into a trout pond?" Naturally, there were a few malcontents in the mix, suggesting that the photographed caribou had in fact been "gut shot" in ignominious style (i.e., the animal wasn't killed cleanly with a precision shot to the heart, lungs, or head). An anonymous commenter came to her defense:
For all you lefty city-slickers out there who are fixating on the blood back in the animals abdomen, that wound was from field dressing the caribou, the process whereby one incises the abdomen to remove the entrails and cool off the carcass quickly. Animals that are gut shot rarely leave a visible blood trail, as major blood vessels are not common in the entrails. So go back to sipping your lattes and gazing at pictures of your Ivy-league messiah. For you, meat comes from a grocery store. Please keep it that way, as we don't want you to handle firearms.
Time to add "buying meat from a grocery store" to the list of liberal sins. Yet we can thank this commenter for capturing one aspect of the cultural politics of hunting in 2008. Hunters hunt for many reasons—family tradition, love of the outdoors, friendship, the challenge of stalking big game—but the sport has always had a "frontier" appeal. I'm a hunter, a self-reliant individual living off the land; here, have some of my venison jerky.
Invoking the frontier theme, the major hunting organizations, such as the Boone and Crockett Club and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, all pay tribute to the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt championed hunting as a way to reinforce America's pioneer values, at a time (the 1890s) when the real frontier was closing. "The virility, clear-sighted common sense and resourcefulness of the American people is due to the fact that we have been a nation of hunters and frequenters of the forest, plains, and waters" is a typical T.R. exhortation. Roosevelt established the still-flickering idea that hunting teaches self-reliance and love of country.