Most speculation about why Sarah Palin decided to quit her governorship falls into one of two camps. Some think that there’s a big scandal looming: as the always perspicacious Josh Marshall wrote, “I would not be surprised if this latest round of revelations shook something else loose that we haven't heard about yet.” Her bizarre press conference felt rambling and manic, almost breathless, and she assumed a martyred pose in talking about the numerous ethics complaints that have been made against her. She certainly sounded like someone facing oncoming disaster.
In Alaska there weren’t many paths to fame. What else could she have done besides politics?
Yet some of her most ardent backers have a different explanation: She’s gearing up to run for president in 2012. As Bill Kristol, a man who’s had an enormous role in creating her national profile, wrote, “If Palin wants to run in 2012, why not do exactly what she announced today? It's an enormous gamble—but it could be a shrewd one.” He continued, “[H]aven't conservatives been lamenting the lack of a national leader? Well, now she'll try to be that.” And there were parts of her speech suggesting she’s getting ready for a new challenge: “It would be apathetic to just kind of hunker down and go with the flow. We’re fisherman. We know only dead fish go with the flow… There is such a need to build up, and fight for our state and our country.”
On the face of it, it seems preposterous that Palin might think she could maintain any political credibility at all after walking away from her job simply because she has her eye on bigger things. But Palin has long had an almost dementedly inflated sense of her own destiny. In one of the most quoted passages of Todd Purdham’s eviscerating Vanity Fair profile of Palin, he writes that, in traveling through Alaska, several people told him that, in trying to understand their governor, “they had consulted the definition of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Said disorder, Purdum points out, is marked by “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”
As a description of Palin, that sounds about right. It also sounds about right as a description of Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, and maybe even Bill Clinton. There is nothing new about politicians who are staggeringly egotistical and heedlessly dishonest, politicians with fantastic reserves of self-righteousness and self-pity but a shriveled capacity for loyalty. But we don’t usually see this particular kind of craziness in women. Palin is the rare female politician who is as much a megalomaniac as her male peers. Maybe more.
What made Palin the way she is? Society generally doesn’t reward single-minded ambition and deluded self-absorption in women outside of entertainment or fashion. Had Palin been born on the mainland, her talents and charisma might easily have been channeled into television—she was, after all, once an anchorwoman. But in Alaska there weren’t many paths to fame. What else could she have done besides politics? As Purdum wrote, “In the same way that Lyndon Johnson could only have come from Texas, or Bill Clinton from Arkansas, Palin and all that she is could only have come from Wasilla.” Once she entered the political fray, her beauty and charm softened the impact of her ambition, making her seem merely feisty where a less attractive woman would have been smeared as a harpy. By the time she’d emerged on the national stage, her confidence—had had a unique chance to grow and flower.
But it also metastasized into deluded arrogance. Palin’s public statements have been full of petty, easily refutable mendacity, delivered with the vehemence of a compulsive liar. Purdum’s piece reveals one tiny but telling incident, in which Palin told McCain aides that she and her husband had been without insurance of any kind in the early years of their marriage. “Checking with Todd Palin himself revealed that, no, they had had catastrophic coverage all along,” Purdum writes. “This sort of slipperiness—about both what the truth was and whether the truth even mattered—persisted on questions great and small.”
On Thursday, CBS News had a small scoop revealing a similarly cavalier attitude towards the truth. After McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, rejected a request by Palin to reply to a report that her husband, Todd, has been a member of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party, Palin came forward with a preposterous excuse, like a teenager trying to explain away the incriminating smell of liquor—or a governor trying to cover up a mysterious jaunt to Buenos Aires. Secession, she insisted—despite all available evidence—is not part of the party’s platform, and besides, Todd “was only a 'member' bc independent alaskans too often check that 'Alaska Independent' box on voter registrations thinking it just means non partisan. He caught his error when changing our address and checked the right box. I still want it fixed." A clearly exasperated Schmidt wrote back that secession is the AIP’s “entire reason for existence. A cursory examination of the website shows that the party exists for the purpose of seceding from the union. That is the stated goal on the front page of the web site. Our records indicate that todd was a member for seven years. If this is incorrect then we need to understand the discrepancy. The statement you are suggesting be released would be inaccurate.”
Despite such rebukes, and her punchline status in much of the country, Palin’s self-conception appears undiminished. The conventional wisdom is that she barely has a chance in 2012, but nothing in her own behavior suggests that she agrees. She has a political action committee whose website is currently promoting a story headlined, “Face of a GOP Serious About Good Policy? How About Sarah Palin?” And, as Purdum reports, she has a book coming out next year, co-authored with a prominent Christian journalist, that is going to be published simultaneously by HarperCollins and the Christian publishing house Zondervan, whose version may “include supplemental material on faith.”
And, indeed, her resignation speech on July 3rd often seemed less like a farewell than like an inauguration of a new campaign. “We know we can effect positive change outside government at this movement in time on another scale and actually make a difference for our priorities,” she said, “So we will, for Alaskans, and for Americans.”
The Alaska governor shares the personality flaws of many of her male peers, but by all accounts she doesn’t express them via the preferred method of politicians like John Edwards or Mark Sanford—by being sexually reckless. The United States has grown more blasé about sex scandals post Bill Clinton, but they remain more damaging than, say, dishonesty, greed, or naked incompetence.
Her seemingly irrational faith in herself might not be totally misplaced, especially if other Republicans keep self-destructing at their current rate. That’s because while Palin is unhinged, so is much of her competition. Politics has always attracted the deeply screwed up, but our current political system seems to do so more than most. Perhaps that’s because healthy people looking to make their mark on the world don’t want to subject themselves to the inquisitorial media attention or crushing vapidity of modern campaigning. The gloriously sane Barack Obama is the exception that proves the rule—watch people wonder at his unfeigned affection for his family, the fact that he doesn’t seem desperate for praise. Success in our politics often requires a voracious, antinomian egotism, a sense that rules are for others.
The Alaska governor shares the personality flaws of many of her male peers, but there’s no evidence she express them via the preferred method of politicians like John Edwards or Mark Sanford—by being sexually reckless. The United States has grown more blasé about sex scandals post Bill Clinton, but they remain more damaging than, say, dishonesty, greed, flakiness or naked incompetence.
Palin may have gone rogue on John McCain, had public feuds with her grandson’s teenage father, turned on loyal aids, flubbed interviews, spent tens of thousands of other people’s money on clothes, told countless lies and now walked away from her responsibilities, but as far as we know she hasn’t cheated on her husband. If congenital narcissists dominate our politics, Palin may still be just the narcissist the GOP needs.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism . She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.