So long, Sarah Palin.
That can really be read two ways: "Goodbye, Sarah," and "It has been so long, Sarah... so very, very long...." How you read it will depend on how you view Sarah Palin.
Last Friday, Sarah Palin left Fox News. Her exit from the national stage is now complete. But her passing from view bears comment, for the unique nature of her influence on the country's politics for the past four or five years. Because one thing everyone can agree upon -- love her or hate her -- Sarah Palin was unique.
I first became aware of Palin along with everyone else, when John McCain ushered her onto the national stage and announced she'd be his running mate. "Sarah Who?" the nation asked, myself included. So I did what everyone else in the country was doing at approximately the same time: I looked her up on Wikipedia. Immediately, the love-her-or-hate-her nature of Sarah Palin became apparent. For the first (and only, so far) time ever, I witnessed a "wikiwar." I would read the Wikipedia page on Sarah, come back a few hours later, reload it, and half of it would have changed -- either for the better or the worse, depending on who had last changed things. This went on for days, in fact, and was absolutely fascinating to watch. All the rumors and innuendo and scandals about Sarah were on display... and then she'd be the most wonderful governor in the entire universe, a half-hour later. As I said, fascinating.
Maybe not "unique," though. These days, any local politician who is likewise thrust upon the national stage in an instant would probably go through the same process with their Wikipedia bio. I've read a few articles today marking Sarah's exit from Fox News that have praised her (from non-conservative writers, even) for her political "talent" or even "raw talent." I see her mystique differently, though. It wasn't talent. It was raw charisma.
Charisma is a tough thing to define. It is, one might almost say (if one were in a dictionary, looking it up, and one's eye momentarily wandered), chimeric. Some believe charisma is inherently a positive thing, but I don't believe that's true. I see it as more neutral, like "leadership." Evil men have successfully led nations to some very dark places, for instance, showing how just being a good leader doesn't make you a good man (or woman). Being charismatic is the same. Ronald Reagan had charisma. George Herbert Walker Bush did not. Bill Clinton and George Walker Bush both had a lot of charisma -- they excelled at being the center of attention in any room. Sarah Palin had charisma galore. Pure charisma, in fact -- so pure it kept her going long past when any similar politician has enjoyed the national spotlight.
From the beginning, Sarah was portrayed as Everywoman. She was the suburban ideal of the soccer mom, with an edge. Hockey mom. Later to become Mama Grizzly. She exuded folksy charm. She was also portrayed as incredibly competent, rising from a small town to wrest her state away from the grips of a corrupted political class.
Almost instantly, people felt an intense attraction or an intense dislike about Sarah Palin. There weren't many folks who just shrugged at her -- you either loved her or hated her, almost on sight. The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. Few were indifferent about Sarah. Palin's essential problem was that she was a one-trick pony, though. Palin could rile up a crowd of Republicans like no one I've ever seen, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich included. She managed to be vicious with a smile, and conservatives ate it up with a spoon. She pulled in larger crowds than her erstwhile running mate John McCain for the entire campaign. These crowds roared for Sarah. McCain's lack of charisma helped this along, no doubt, but still the difference was notable.
The real problem was Sarah being Sarah. When not on stage energizing the base, she tended to speak in the almost-incoherent style most have come to call "word salad." Toss a bunch of words in the air, and hope that they made some kind of sense. Each phrase, taken alone, had that gosh-darnit folksiness, but when taken together it was hard to tease out any actual meaning. Palin might have been trying to say something valid, but the way it came out, all jumbled together, it was hard at times even for her supporters to tell you what she meant. I even jumped in and defended Sarah for her "Putin rears his head" quote, which even conservatives hadn't seemed to properly understand. Palin started with a valid point, but the shorthand way she flitted around when talking about it left everyone either wondering (or ridiculing) what she was trying to say.
Sarah's charisma, however, was indefatigable. It just rolled over everything else. She soon realized that media interviews weren't her strong point (to put it mildly), and stopped doing them. She turned the whole thing to an advantage for her, in her rallies, lambasting the "lamestream" media and their "gotcha" questions (like "what newspapers do you read?" for instance). Sarah didn't care what those elites thought, the "real American" audiences who cheered her on mattered a lot more to her.
Once defeated on the vice presidential trail, Sarah reinvented herself as America's Political Media Darling. She shucked off the governor's job and got right down to making some money off her charisma. Which she very successfully did, right up to last Friday, in fact. Sarah Palin had an outsized effect on the 2010 elections, in a way I've never seen before. The Washington Post kept a running tally of how candidates picked by Sarah Palin were doing. Her every utterance was obsessed over by media from the right, left, and center. Once again -- name me one out-of-work politician who has ever managed to loom so large over an election she wasn't even running in. That is Sarah's uniqueness. Her charisma was so enticing that she convinced America that what she thought was indeed relevant to the political debate. She was "famous for being famous" -- a self-feeding cycle.
Ultimately, Sarah Palin rode out her "15 minutes" of fame longer than any other washed-up vice-presidential nominee. Her decline began the moment she decided not to run for president in 2012. She strung everyone along until the last minute, but when she stayed out of the race her star began to fade. Most in the media had been paying attention to her for four years because they thought it likely she'd run again (or, at least, that's how they rationalized it, one assumes), but when she didn't she became a whole lot less interesting.
Sarah Palin was at her best on the stump, tossing verbal red meat to a base that loved her. After a Palin speech, the entire audience would leave thinking "Sarah is just like me!" Ask any politician -- that is an astonishing feat. Palin would hone her quips and barbs and have them at the ready to make the crowd laugh or roar with rage. Coming up with a line like "How's that hopey-changey stuff workin' out for ya?" is sheer partisan brilliance, whether you laughed or cringed when you first heard it. Sarah Palin was a fountain of such scathing soundbites.
This wasn't enough, though, in the end. Watch Sarah's last Fox News interview to see what I mean. Her schtick is a little frayed around the edges. She's still in there, makin' up words ("electioning"?) and stuff, dontcha know, but it all comes across as rather dated, now. With the Tea Party exuberance abating and Republicans in Congress considering compromising again, Palin seems a bit out of touch, these days. A reminder of an era gone by, in other words. Obama's re-election was the final toll of the bell for Sarah, so it's indeed fitting she left Fox the same week Obama was sworn in for the second time.
Sarah Palin will eventually be nothing more than a footnote in a history book. Even most guys that actually become vice president are no more than an afterthought throughout most of American History. Also-rans in the veep race are nothing more than asterisks, at best.
As Palin leaves her national audience on Fox News, though, we have to at least give her credit for her staying power. She lasted longer at Fox News than she lasted as governor (and made a lot more money, too). Her every utterance was pounced upon by the media for years after her run -- and it was hard to say who was more obsessed with her, the media which loved Sarah or the media which loved to hate Sarah. That's an astounding achievement in its own right. Call it a measure of how far pure charisma -- with very little else to back it up -- can take you in America, these days.
Even Lefties, if they're honest, will admit that they're kind of going to miss Sarah. Granted, it's in a Nixonian "to kick around" sort of sense, but still. Sarah Palin's style-over-substance phenomenon is perhaps best summed up with the observation that she'll likely be longer remembered more for a line that comedienne Tina Fey used impersonating her than by anything she actually said. Fey was a big reason Sarah flopped so hard on the national stage, and her "I can see Russia from my house" line was memorable indeed. But plucky Sarah didn't even let Tina get her down, she went on Saturday Night Live herself to show she had a sense of humor. Nothing could keep Sarah down, for a very long time indeed.
So long, Sarah. Each in our own way, we're all going to miss you.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant