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10.05.08

Palin vs. The Power Girls

The whole Palin reality show—firecracker debut, flameout, and debate comeback—has been a complicated psychic passage for aspirational American women

The sudden endorsement of Sarah Palin by Shelly Mandell, president of the L.A. chapter of the National Organization of Women, wasn't the weekend's only girlish fluttering over the divine Sarah. On Friday night, comedienne Margaret Cho on CBS's Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson came right out and said she wanted to sleep with the distinguished governor of Alaska. It's getting clearer by the hour that Palin, whom Chris Matthews likes to refer to grumpily as "perky," is hitting the hot buttons of bipartisan horniness even as her hope fades of attracting the hot flash vote of Hillary Clinton supporters.

Mandell and Cho notwithstanding, though, it's men whom Palin seems to have most mesmerized. In CNN's coverage of the debate, where they had people hooked up to dials, the green squiggly line tracking men's instant reactions zoomed upwards every time she opened her moist mouth. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, the conservatives' political Bible (Old Testament division, Murdoch's Weekly Standard being the New), said, "I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch..." (yeah, Rich, I betcha.)

I too loved Palin's Ethel Merman star turn, especially when she said that special needs kids would have a friend at the White House and the cameras cut to baby Trig Palin.

"She's got that challengingly authoritarian air that some of us find erotically stimulating," mused a lefty screenwriter friend of mine morosely. "Nurse Ratchet. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. We want to shut her up so that when it's all over, that nasal bark of hers becomes a breathy 'Oh, Mr. Democrat!'" No wonder John McCain charged exultantly around the podium in a gymnasium at Colorado State University the day after the debate like Uncle Fester on Viagra, hollering "How about Sarah Palin last night? Heh! Viva la Barracuda! Heh!''

The irony is that it was a woman who drained the Botox from Palin's rootin' tootin' appeal to other professional women. Katie Couric's sweetly steel stiletto punctured the balloon (and literally wrote the script for the best moments of Tina Fey's demonic takeoff.) For Couric herself, it was satisfying vindication after the Hell's Angels' initiation ceremony that greeted her move in 2006 to the CBS Evening News from NBC's Today Show, when news legends, media hacks, and cable heads lined up to urinate on her leathers.

Yet Couric's tar-and-feathering may have been psychically useful to her. It seems to have left her with a defiantly focused calm and a what-have-I-got-to-lose determination to cut the fluff and bring in the story. Now when she glances up from her notes in half-moon reading glasses with an enquiring gaze she looks authentically grave rather than someone wearing an I Am A Serious Anchorperson costume.

Couric's unmasking of Sarah Palin was not just a service to the nation, it was a tonic to the professional pride of American women still sore about losing Hillary as a presidential role model. The whole Palin reality show-firecracker debut, flameout, and debate comeback-has been a complicated psychic passage for aspirational American women, Democrats included. However appalled many Dem women were by her views, when Palin came out guns blazing at the Republican Convention, there was a kind of exhilarating hormonal supercharge that excited guilty admiration. At 8:30 in the morning after her Convention speech I ran into the unlikely focus group of a bunch of working Brearley School moms in a Madison Avenue coffee shop. "She's fabulous!" they chorused. "I hate her! But she's fabulous!!" I have to say that I too loved Palin's Ethel Merman star turn, especially when she said that special needs kids would have a friend at the White House and the cameras cut to Cindy McCain gazing down at challenged baby Trig Palin like the Pieta.

Then came Katie and the interview we can summarize here as Putin Invaded My Airspace and Ate My Homework. Dem women's political relish at Palin's brazen vacuity was marred by a morbid sense that somehow they all shared in the gender disgrace of her performance. It was the double insult of it all. First Hillary gets trashed and discarded and her whole voter base is made to feel like a bunch of saggy old feminists in 60 denier support hose. Then Palin's answers to Couric's probing questions declares that the show she belonged on was not the CBS Evening News but Fox's own Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?

I'm inclined to think that intense sisterly embarrassment accounted for a good chunk of the emotional buildup to the debate and helps explain why 35 million of those unprecedented 70 million Americans tuned in to watch. (The other 35 just wanted to-well, just wanted to watch.)

A lot of the anticipatory tension was not just about partisan politics or the quiz show element of whether Palin would mispronounce Ahmadinejad (she nailed it, several times) but whether she could redeem herself to members of her own sex as a bona fide power gal. Which she kinda sorta did-alongside solidifying herself with the west-of-the-Hudson, east-of-the-Rockies "base" while not doing so well that she stoked the fears of those who worry that, if we be so unblessed, she might actually wind up president of the United States.

The strange thing was that after it was over the same Dem women who were enraged by the Couric interview could now shrug about Palin more or less getting away with it. The formerly larger than life Governor of Alaska, they could see, had comfortably settled in to a new, less threatening role as the GOP populist charm operative and sex symbol and therefore could be discounted. That could be a mistake, though. It's still possible that the fetching image of a swimsuit contest has greater resonance to voters than the For Sale sign on their house. Heh.

P.S. Maybe while Shelly Mandell's working on Palin's issues she could also work on the executive suite of NBC and save Meet the Press after Tom Brokaw throws it in. They ought to drop the lame idea of rotating a bunch of boys' club network bets like Chuck Todd and David Gregory and go all out to spring Couric from her CBS contract. And if they can't get Katie, snatch Greta Van Susteren away from Fox News. The ferociously well-briefed former attorney has been the No. 1 woman in cable news for 14 years. In her six and a half years at Fox she has consistently won her 10 p.m. time slot against CNN and MSNBC despite a staff of only 12 and a marketing budget of zero. (Post-debate she was 200,000 ahead of the also-ran, the aggressively marketed Anderson Cooper of CNN.) Now that would be a triumph for professional women: for a tough dead-aim broad like van Susteren to be hold court in Washington rather than those swimsuit "strategists" that keep popping up on cable news.