In the beginning, she winked. "I was just your average hockey mom," she told us by way of introduction, which was a charming diversion from the reality of the most astonishing political debut in modern times. Sarah Palin did indeed show she could play politics as a contact sport; her motherhood did become central to her message. But average? Not in your wildest dreams.
Maybe Sarah was the girl next door once upon a time, but not on the day we met her, back in late August, her 20th wedding anniversary with Todd, the Iron Dog champion. She was not just a governor, but the most popular governor in the country; not just a mom but a mother of five, with a family made for reality TV. And she wasn't just a running mate; she was a one-woman rescue team for the Republican ticket. Largely unknown but suddenly exalted, she was the perfect wide screen onto which people projected pride and prejudice in equal measure: she's fresh, she's phony; an inspiration to women, an insult to them; the bright future of the Republican Party, the cartoon princess of its populist past. She split people then, and they're divided still, and she's the one subplot in this story that remains utterly unresolved.
Hardly anyone saw Palin coming. The newspapers had to tell readers how to pronounce her name. The culture war had gone quiet but had not gone away: conservatives had been searching for a soul mate for ages, and it sure wasn't John McCain; the left was primed for a fight that Barack Obama seemed unwilling to wage. Women, meanwhile, were wondering what comes next: if Hillary Clinton, the wonky workaholic with her legions of fans, could not capture the White House flag, who was next in line? Palin broke it all open, even before she headed out to conquer what she termed the "pro-America parts" of America. She arrived at the bonfire with the tinder stacked high, and somehow it fell to her to be the match.
Those first days gave us the 2008 campaign in miniature, if only we'd known what to look for. "She's exactly who I need," McCain said when he introduced her, sounding like Dr. Frankenstein putting the pieces together, an Evangelical arm, a reformist backbone and, just for good measure, lipstick. The base of his party exulted, and not a moment too soon. McCain was never really one of them: too ironic, too profane, too beloved by the media, a Baptist who'd never been baptized, for heaven's sake. But now John gave them Sarah, and his campaign was born again. "They're beyond ecstatic," said Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition. Rush Limbaugh, who had spent much of the year looking for new ways to clobber McCain, all but sent him flowers. "Palin = Guns, Babies, Jesus," he wrote to Politico, adding, "Home f___ing run."
The reaction of the right was fueled by the response of the left. Democrats were instantly and gleefully appalled that the Republicans would consider a one-term governor qualified to challenge their one-term Senator. She was the welfare-state queen pretending to be the independent frontier gal, the crusader against cronyism who had installed her own courtiers and blackballed her enemies. And who goes to four colleges in six years anyway, and names her children after sports seasons and fishing spots? Right away, before she'd had a chance to take off her coat, the attack was intense, intimate.
The most stunning accusation was not about her experience or intellect or attitude; it was the allegation that she had committed a stupendous moral fraud, faking her infant son Trig's birth to cover up her teen daughter's pregnancy. Throughout the weekend after her selection, the rumor moved from Daily Kos to the Times of London at Internet speed: the fact that it spread as far and as fast as it did signaled just how much the two sides of our cultural divide distrust each other.
When the Palins were forced by the rumors to announce that daughter Bristol was, in fact, currently pregnant and due to be married, it merely replaced one frenzy with another. It's a wonder the nation's servers didn't melt under the strain: the New York Times ran a much e-mailed story observing, "It's the Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition." Given her family situation, the story argued, Palin "has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency and whether she is right to try." A blogger on Jezebel posted "Why Sarah Palin Incites Near-Violent Rage in Normally Reasonable Women." Rudy Giuliani, the thrice-married mayor whose daughter's Facebook profile placed her in Camp Obama, was especially jubilant as he introduced Palin to her party at the Republican Convention: "How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be Vice President?'' Giuliani said. "How dare they do that? When do they ever ask a man that question?''
By then, more Americans had decided to tune in to her speech than watched the Olympics' opening ceremonies in Beijing. She emerged onto the stage, and the arena roared its welcome as if she were some kind of conquering hero. She looked out and smiled as she stared her critics down. She sassed them. She stabbed them. She derided the "élites" whose opinions meant nothing to her. Her lipstick joke was all about being tough your basic well-coiffed pit bull can handle it when Bill Maher calls you a Category 5 moron. And when she finished and the crowd screamed and danced, she twirled across the stage with the baby in her arms, signaling to women everywhere that nothing was going to stop her, and to conservatives everywhere that nothing would make her abort a Down-syndrome baby, and her daughter stood there with her, clutching her boyfriend's hand. The critics who were disgusted by the double standard of a campaign that claimed that Palin's family members were off-limits except when it suited her purposes to invoke them had to consider whether she didn't have the right to brandish a child they said wasn't hers and a daughter they claimed she was ashamed of.
Beneath the drama, was there a hint of faux outrage? Republicans privately celebrated how each new attack sent more votes Palin's way. The size of the crowds doubled, the money poured in, and in a matter of days, McCain was running five points ahead of Obama. The culture war was so rich and fragrant, you could miss the little civil insurrections: a host of conservative brains detaching themselves from the conservative heartland, which still beat for Sarah.
But in the end, the critical showdowns occurred between Palin and two other working moms going about their jobs, who four years ago would have been in no position to wreak such havoc: Katie Couric, whose cool questions yielded scalding footage; and Tina Fey, whose most lethal SNL skits didn't always bother to rewrite Palin's statements but merely repeated them.
Couric managed a remarkable feat for a woman making $15 million a year: she made herself invisible. She was not the feminist's avenging anchor or the snide dean of admissions or any of the archetypes she might have been tempted to embrace, given the stakes. She just asked her questions, then asked again, and can you give us just some example and stayed far enough out of the way that Palin had the stage entirely to herself and proceeded to self-destruct.
Plus, it was Palin's great misfortune to uncannily resemble the country's hottest comedy star. But Fey could not have succeeded without the help of the toxic sexism of the McCain camp. So great was their apparent distrust of Palin's abilities that after the rollout, they kept her in a lockbox. Asked about Palin's lack of foreign policy experience, McCain adviser Charlie Black reassured us that "she's going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years." She had no chance to define herself, so Fey got to do it for her, and by the time of Palin's debate with Joe Biden, you weren't really sure which would turn up. Palin was a good sport, even appearing on SNL herself; but by then, the damage was done. On Election Day, voters concluded in exit polls, 60% to 38%, that she was not qualified to be President.
But the arguments have not gone away. The Republican National Committee is still inventorying her wardrobe. Her very name can turn a cocktail party into a cage fight. Her appearances on behalf of Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss drew huge, exultant crowds. A CNN poll of Republicans in early December put her in the lead for the 2012 nomination. She wound up second only to Angelina Jolie as the most searched woman on Yahoo!
In the meantime, Clinton has been tapped to become America's face to the world. Was this the Year of the Woman or the year of incremental progress, or neither? You had to ask yourself if it was an accident that the two most powerful women in our national life just happened to be among the most polarizing. Both Palin and Clinton called themselves feminists, though the Sisterhood might not be so quick to validate Palin's membership card. Neither woman could resist playing the victim of the mean male media though a poll after the election found that nearly two-thirds of women felt Palin got more bad press because of her gender, which is twice as many as thought Clinton was unfairly treated.
"The personal is political" may be feminist gospel, but like any article of faith, it can be taken to extremes. Everything about Palin seemed personal: an energy policy reduced to "Drill, baby, drill," an economic policy embodied by Joe the Plumber. We knew too much about her clothes and her kids and her hunting habits and far too little about her priorities and principles. It was enough to make you grateful for Obama's near total lack of sentimentality and emotional transparency. We don't care how he feels; we care what he thinks and what he does.
Palin may have lost, but she will now be the place where part of her party at least can park its ambitions for the next year or two. That's not a bad return on a long-shot investment; in the bombed-out no-man's-land of Republican rivalry, she starts out with a valuable piece of real estate that she was wise to consolidate. The most interesting thing about the evolution of Sarah Palin will be watching who she becomes, and whether she offers a philosophy that is bigger than her personality, a claim to leadership that rests on more than a wink and a promise.