Perhaps it’s time to stop analyzing Sarah Palin as a politician. Maybe, in her own muddled way, she is at last owning up to the fact that she has been miscast. You don’t need politics anymore once you’ve discovered that the alchemy of celebrity has turned you into a 24-carat phenomenon. The McCain vice-presidential pick was her American Idol moment. It allowed the world to see that a raw Alaskan governor who was a forgettable student of five different colleges was a megawatt star who could light up an arena and rope line. That revelation has plunged her into chaos.
Of all the politicians who invoke a renewed desire to “spend more time with their families” as their careers go down in flames, Palin is the one politician who could have uttered those words and been believed.
Palin is clearly terrified. Her M.O. is to cloak her terror in grandiosity. Both shine through in the suppressed hysteria of her increasingly strange appearances before the camera. That precipitous, wacky, overcaffeinated aria on the back lawn of her house on the eve of the Fourth reminded me of another memorable moment in the chronicles of celebrity—a speech the unraveling Princess Diana made in December 1993. “Over the next few months,” the princess announced to a startled audience at a luncheon to benefit the Headway National Injuries Association in London, “I will be seeking a more suitable way of combining a meaningful public role, with hopefully, a more private life. I hope you can find it in your hearts to understand and give me the time and space that has been lacking in recent years.” Then she burst into tears.
Sarah Palin’s bow-out speech was the stylistic opposite of Diana’s simple cri de coeur, but its emotional twin sister. She rambled through a manic, off-topic hymn to the bravery of the troops and lingered over the primacy in her life of her beloved Alaska, which she was in the process of abandoning. But the speech I suspect was in her heart was a weepy “time and space” declaration very like Diana’s.
Of all the politicians who invoke a renewed desire to “spend more time with their families” as their careers go down in flames (try Mark Sanford’s Fourth of July at home on Sullivan’s Island with Jenny—that couldn’t have been pretty), Palin is the one politician who could have uttered those words and been believed—by her public, and also by plenty of people outside “the base.” She is not only a beleaguered governor of a troubled state, who is pretending to be interested in gas pipelines and “championing ethics reform” while in the middle of a cascade of ethics charges. She is also a mother trying to deal with a Down syndrome baby boy, a needy 7-year-old girl, and a teenage daughter who is herself an unwed mother with an infant whose father, a teenage self-described “redneck,” has turned out to be as fond of the red light on the TV camera as his erstwhile mother-in-law-elect.
Who could blame Sarah Palin for calling time out?
I mean, imagine the bedlam that breaks out in the Palin’s Wasilla home when the phone disrupts the family dinner for the millionth time and they all start screaming at once. Todd grabs Trig. Palin starts ranting down the phone at news of another press slight that’s “predictable, ironic, and as always detached from the lives of ordinary American people who are sick of the ‘politics of personal destruction,’” and Bristol’s yelling at the TV screen at the sudden sight of Levi Johnston’s dopey, handsome face on yet another talk show, getting famous on HER. It really doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet Palin, far from shutting down and using this time to get a handle on her insane life, has kept grabbing back the spotlight to rail at us again. Like Princess Diana, who was both an addict of fame and its tormented victim, Palin is at constant war with the exposure she seems to live for. In Diana’s case, it was the raucous tabloids and their pitiless photographers who stalked her every waking hour alone or with her children. In Palin’s case, it’s that malign aristocratic phantom, the “media elite.”
It’s hard to feel as sorry for Palin as one did for Diana. The comely governor is so cocky in her ignorance, so relentless in pursuit of her own rise to fame, her arrogance makes it much harder to see her vulnerability. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Palin should take out a leaf out of Michelle Obama's book. The first lady has been unapologetic about her decision to take a break from her career rise to deal with the complexity of how to combine her new fame and her husband’s high office with domestic life. If Palin would just say that she needs to, yes, spend more time with her family—instead of all that babble about helping Alaska and being more “effective” from the outside and General MacArthur blah blah blah—she’d be a lot more credible and a lot truer to her professed values.
And if she still has her sights set on the White House, she’d also be making a cannier political move. A couple of quiet years (mostly) spent at home boning up on policy positions could help her get smart as she sorted her family life out and paid off her legal bills with her book advance.
It’s a sad reflection on the way women are viewed in politics—or the way Palin believes they are viewed, or the way she views herself—that the outgoing governor of Alaska can't cut herself some slack and admit her life has unraveled. Like Diana, what she was really saying in that rambling resignation speech was one word: "HELP!”
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.