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06.14.09

What Hillary Can Teach Sarah Palin

A scene at the State Department Friday afternoon is one that the Alaska governor should watch on videotape.

As Sarah Palin’s furious claims of being victimized by David Letterman once again became catnip for cable hosts, a more elevated female narrative was being played out in Washington’s Foggy Bottom. On Friday afternoon, Melanne Verveer, Hillary Clinton’s former East Wing chief of staff and founder of the Vital Voices democracy initiative, was sworn in as ambassador at large for global women's issues by her friend of 25 years, the secretary of State.

Standing in the grand Benjamin Franklin Rooms amidst a sea of some 400 animated guests—most of them unostentatious women of stature and purpose, and many of them mentored at some time or other by Verveer or Hillary—I felt someone should pluck the combustible Alaskan away from whatever rancid talk show she was headed for and make her watch a vignette of what real female power looks like.

Is the secretary of State lugging around a Palin-size grudge about having to play a subservient role to the man who humbled her at the polls?

The scene was a great snapshot of two battle-tested empty nesters, both handsome blown-out blondes in their early 60s, both wearing consummately safe alpha-female pantsuits (Hillary in self-possessed powder blue, her new ambassador in respectful grey), both dedicated policy wonks who worked on behalf of oppressed women in unpronounceable places long before it was fashionable, both mothers (a grandmother in Verveer’s case) with hunky husbands (anchorman-handsome Philip Verveer is a powerful communications lawyer in Washington and soon to be the State Department’s U.S. coordinator for international communications with the rank of ambassador himself). When Melanne raised her hand to take the oath of office, the two women exchanged glances of veiled jubilance.

“There’s so much work to do!” Hillary exclaimed to me in the receiving line, her eyes sparkling at the thought of the impending avalanche of briefing papers heading her way from her new global women’s issues czarina.

Here’s one thing Sarah could learn from Hillary: Cheerfulness is more impressive than resentment. Is the secretary of State lugging around a Palin-size grudge about having to play a subservient role to the man who humbled her at the polls? Doesn’t Clinton have a better reason to resent Obama than Palin has to bang on about Letterman? I mean, if it weren’t for Barack, Hillary would now be president of the United States. How’s that for “hurtful?” Yet the president and his highest-ranking Cabinet officer seem to be getting along like Nick and Nora Charles. Or that‘s how Hillary’s playing it anyhow.

Here’s something Palin could learn from Letterman: Leave the jokes to the comedians. Does anyone believe that Palin really, truly thought Letterman’s sexual joke was about her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, not her 18-year-old, Bristol—who, after all, actually did get knocked up? My reading is she didn't believe it, but she was happy to have you believe it. Happy to have people—too many of them, unfortunately, who only pay attention with one ear—be her target audience.

The governor of Alaska doesn’t object to every wisecrack that relies for its punchline on a mental picture of a Palin daughter having sexual intercourse with an older man, even when the daughter is the one who’s still a minor. Here’s the statement Palin spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton issued after Dave invited the governor and her husband to come on the air with him: “The Palins have no intention of providing a ratings boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show. Plus, it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman.” Just to ensure that her youngest daughter wouldn't enjoy a weekend without embarrassment, Sarah Palin launched into a fresh tirade to CNN's Wolf Blitzer about Letterman's "crude, sexist, perverted joke about a 14-year-old being 'knocked up' by Alex Rodriguez."

Letterman’s joke may not have been his finest hour, but at least he swiftly apologized. Meanwhile, the nation’s hockey mom scores another goal for intellectual dishonesty.

Finally, here’s a second thing Sarah could learn from Hillary: It’s the substance that sustains, not the exposure. In terms of raw talent on the hustings, Sarah Palin is far more of a political natural than Hillary Clinton. She might get somewhere in the long run if she would just go away in the short run and read some books. Her problem is that she thinks the popular culture is the culture. She has no context, no knowledge of the world to offset her obsessive Nixonian flailings about how everyone is belittling her stature as the hardworking governor of Alaska. Her answers on CNN about Pentagon cuts in missile defense that affect her state were as halting and glassy-eyed as a novice U.N. translator's attempt to grapple with Uzbek in his earphones.

Yet if Palin added some depth to her knowledge, she has so much she could offer. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a mother of five who translated what she wanted for her kids into fighting for affordable health care and clean air. Palin has a disabled child, one of a sadly ignored subset of Americans whose chances to live a better life desperately need her celebrity spotlight. Teenage mothers could use a leg up from Palin, too, but she’s too busy ginning up celebrity feuds.

Take a leaf out of Hillary’s book, Sarah. (Or from Condi Rice, for that matter. Clinton's predecessor in the job likewise knows how to disappear herself for a bit while she recoups and rebrands.) Bide your time, don’t waste it. Study up—and shut up. If you were a real power woman, we wouldn’t be hearing from you right now, so soon after your vice presidential flameout. You’d be too busy preparing yourself for the day when you have something to say worth hearing.

Xtra Insight: Mark McKinnon: Palin vs. Biden 2016

Xtra Insight: Margaret Carlson: Palin Can't Outsmart Letterman

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.