Picking on Palin – Lessons for 2012

Whenever maybe presidential candidate Sarah Palin is asked about the latest media assault on her character or intelligence, she talks about water rolling off of a duck’s back.

As the Tea Party movement emerged, a giddy media reported on Palin’s lack of historical knowledge last October when she warned Tea Party faithful they can’t “party like it’s 1773”.  Tweets by PBS’ Gwen Ifil and Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas mocking Palin’s supposed gaffe were re-tweeted by at least 16 other elites before they were all schooled on the actual year the Boston Tea Party occurred. Upon realizing their error, Markos said, “It doesn’t matter that she got it right. She’s still a moron and I’m WAY smarter than her!”, to which Ifil was alleged to have replied, “Ditto what Markos said.”  Of course, it was an innocent misunderstanding — they must have thought she was talking about the American Revolution.

So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.  How did Palin fare in an actual “blunder” about the American Revolution?  PBS brought in a historian to explain why Palin’s references to Paul Revere warning the British were inaccurate.  The tactic blew up in the host’s face as the historian repeated assertions of his colleague at the Old North Church, supporting Palin’s statement that Revere did indeed warn the British.  So much for our media elite getting their history from poets instead of museum curators.

The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising StarThis hit back with fact strategy might have spared the nation the suffering it is feeling under the current administration.  From the moment John McCain plucked the former Alaska governor out of obscurity, the media has enjoyed the luxury of an easy target.  Palin was feisty to be sure, but because she was “handled” by establishment professionals who had no experience with her unique brand of political instinct, they may have missed an opportunity.  At least, that is the subtle thesis of Matthew Continetti in his book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star.

The book was largely a flop, and if the local dollar store has sent the last of its bulk buy to the recycling center, you may still find a copy on Amazon or at your local library.  It is worth the read.  Continetti documents how effective the media were at destroying Palin’s image and credibility.  Without spoiling the intrigue, we can say that the pivotal “gaffe” that may have won the election for Obama was not carelessly uttered by a hapless amateur from the backwoods — it was a statement written and coordinated by leadership on the McCain campaign staff.  Palin, often accused of “going rogue” during the campaign, in fact uttered the words that began the downward spiral of the McCain campaign — at the direction of his own senior staff.

Continetti makes a believable case that the disastrous Katie Couric and Charles Gibson interviews could have been avoided by more carefully introducing Palin to the media – and then the public.  In any case, both interviews were deemed survivable (borne out by the progress of the polls at the time), according to the book.  In other words, if Palin had not been shielded from the media altogether — had she been made available to friendly, or at least objective media in smaller and medium markets as the campaign progressed, she would have had time to be briefed on the opposition’s “gotcha” tactics before sticking her head in the jaws of the mainstream media beast.

You may have talked with people who admire Palin and her remarkable achievements, but who just cannot wrap their heads around the notion that she could be leader of the free world.  As the media salivated over the prospect of thousands of Palin private emails being made public, one could almost sense there would be some kind of behind the scenes “outing” — a confirmation of sorts — of the true depths of her ineptitude, incompetence and her intellectual deficit.  The story went away as quickly as a prairie dust storm.  Instead of the bumbling incompetent the media had invented for us, her emails proved her to be a thoughtful, engaged and competent leader.  Maybe Palin is not ready to go toe to toe with other leaders on the world stage, but certainly she is not the Saturday Night Live caricature Tina Fey portrayed either.

The reason this matters is that we are about to enter yet another election cycle where both media and political elites, unhappy with the choices in the GOP field would have to hold their noses and accept a second Obama term. There is no Ronald Reagan in the field… or is there?  A Herman Cain or Michele Bachman, both Tea Party favorites with a counter program to Obama’s failed economic policies, could be the kind of glue needed to restore the wobbly three-legged stool of social, economic and national security conservatism Reagan built in 1980.  Unfortunately, both Cain and Bachmann are easily caricatured, and the machine that transformed Sarah Palin from the hero portrayed in “The Undefeated” into the bumbling idiot portrayed on SNL can do the same or worse to them.

That is, unless they learn early to hit back with the facts.  Both Cain and Bachmann seem to be able to overcome media distortions of their statements or minor speaking gaffes.  Time will tell.  Rebuilding the Reagan legacy can’t happen without an architect who has his command of the language and his ability to connect with the heart and heartland of our country the way he did.  It may well be that Reagan’s spirit lives in one or both of these charismatic individuals.  It may be that in the world of New Media, they can each tell their stories in ways Reagan could not tell his.  Rather than going around the legacy media, they may need to take a play from Newt Gingrich’s playbook and wage a war of facts using the social networks and leave the punditocracy to talk to themselves.

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