In the June Atlantic, Joshua Green has a terrific piece called “The Tragedy of Sarah Palin” that gets at the maddening aspect of Palin’s gifts and strengths as a politician better than any single article has with the exception of Yuval Levin’s COMMENTARY piece two years ago. What really excited John McCain about Palin, and what made her a potentially major political figure, is the exceptional talent she displayed as an insurgent politician in Alaska and in her first two years as governor. Coming out of nowhere, she showed a kind of fearlessness against entrenched interests and a gift for rallying support in pursuit of rather starkly non-ideological governance goals. Of course, what made her an immediate sensation and then a lightning rod was the astonishing poise and rhetorical power she showed in that maiden appearance as McCain’s running mate in that gym in Ohio in August 2008—maybe the most impressive debut on the national stage in American history.
Alas, as Levin suggested might happen and as Green says has happened, Palin came almost immediately to inhabit a different role in the American body politic—not the “maverick” she was chosen to be by the self-proclaimed maverick McCain, but rather as a populist villain-victim (depending on which side you were on). The fault here lay not with her attackers but within her. She embarrassed herself in two interviews, and decided the blame lay not with her own ill-preparedness but with the media that had come after her. Understandably enraged by the misogynistic and practically psychotic attacks on her, she came to embrace her status as a kind of martyr for the social-conservative views that had not been the truly distinguishing features of her meteoric political career up to that moment. She found herself in Harry Truman’s kitchen, and she couldn’t take the heat.
In some ways, the story of Palin is a story of temptation. Rather than sticking to her guns and deepening her political credentials and her knowledge base, she embraced her celebrity instead. And in doing so, she didn’t defeat her critics and enemies; she capitulated to them. Listen, it’s her life and her fortune and she is free to do what she wishes with it. And there’s no telling what the future holds for anyone in America. But she had and has more raw political talent than anyone I’ve ever seen, and, alas, as phenoms go, it looks like she is headed for a Darryl Strawberry-like playing career.