Dearly as I esteem Ross Douthat, I thought his blogpost today on the press and Sarah Palin did not hit the nail on the head.
No politician, from Bush to Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi, is hated so intensely by so many Americans [as Sarah Palin]. And this is what’s so problematic, to my mind, about much of the Palin coverage: The media often acts as though they’re covering her because her conservative fan base is so large (hence the endless talk about her 2012 prospects), when they’re really covering her because so many liberals are eager to hear about, read about and then freak about whatever that awful, terrifying woman is up to now.
Now, question: WHY exactly is it problematic for the press to cover a politician who is widely disliked? Palin is not going to be president, conceded. But George Wallace was never going to be president either, yet time spent thinking about him between 1962 and 1972 was not time wasted.
There is a mood I know in the conservative world to downplay Palin’s significance. From the vantage point of 2011, the enthusiasm for Palin once felt by many conservatives – including conservative intellectuals – looks excruciatingly embarrassing. Better to say, “Who us? Never! It was Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan who inflicted Palin on the national debate.”
(No, I’m not making that last bit up. Here’s Ross again:
The fact that TPM was the first to seize on the “death panels” provocation is neither “funny” nor “ironic.” Instead, it’s typical of the Palin-press symbiosis. If you were a casual consumer of political news in 2009, you would assume that Palin’s famous “death panels” remark received outsize media attention only after it became a rallying cry for the right-wing masses. But in reality, it received outsized media attention in part because a liberal Web site seized on it and ran with it as an example of the scary awfulness of Sarah Palin. And that pattern keeps repeating itself. It’s why there’s more Palin coverage in publications like TPM, MSNBC and Vanity Fair (not to mention, of course, a certain Palin-obsessed Atlantic blogger) than in many conservative outlets: Not because they’re the only places willing to tell the truth about her, but because they’ve built an audience that believes the worst about her, and enjoys wallowing in the fear and loathing she inspires.)
You’d never know from reading that passage that conservative thought leaders continue to use and justify the death panel phrase to this very day.
Ross would like to convince us – convince himself perhaps – that Palin-mania is a libel hurled at innocent conservatives by traffic-hungry liberals. Yet only just last week, the Wall Street Journal‘s house blogger James Taranto had this to say:
Professional jealousy and intellectual snobbery, however, only scratch the surface of the left’s bizarre attitude toward Palin. They explain the intensity of the disdain, but not the outright hatred–not why some people whose grasp of reality is sufficient to function in society made the insane inference that she was to blame for a madman’s attempt to murder Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
This unhinged hatred of Palin comes mostly from women. …[T]his goes beyond mere jealousy. For many liberal women, Palin threatens their sexual identity, which is bound up with their politics in a way that it is not for any other group (possibly excepting gays, though that is unrelated to today’s topic).
True, Taranto like many others – possibly including Ross – has moved to a second order degree of Palin-mania. Like Jennifer Rubin only a year ago the author of “Why Jews Hate Palin,” these second-degree Palin maniacs no longer defend Palin. Instead, they try to solve the baffling mystery: how could anybody possibly object to the half-term governor?
Is it because they look down upon those who lack fancy college degrees? Because they hate babies? (Those were Taranto’s theories.) Or perhaps because they despise military moms? Or are they just jealous that Palin is so damn sexy?
I’d be willing to join Ross in pretending that the whole shameful Palin episode never happened if I could assure myself that the second-degree Palin defenders really had learned the lesson of this experience. I see no sign of it.
So as a contribution to the debate, let me try to explain why the Palin phenomenon cannot be left behind quite so fast.
In 2008, the Republican party nominated for the office of vice-president a person who is now pretty universally agreed to be unfit for the presidency. (Even Taranto agrees with that.) Concededly: it’s not the first time in the history of the republic that this has happened. But here’s the difference between Palin and, say, Spiro Agnew or Henry Wallace. The Palin nomination elicited a huge outpouring of argument from Republicans and conservatives denying that competence mattered at all in a potential president.
Admittedly, much of this defense was insincere. But unfortunately – not all. Palin we could quietly consign to the attic of Republican embarrassments. The apparatus of excuse and justification that surrounded and protected Palin until the day before yesterday – that still chugs away over at the Wall Street Journal – that apparatus remains an overwhelming impediment to any hope of a more responsible conservatism of the future.