I found it hard not to cringe during Sarah Palin’s conversation with Oprah Monday. Not when she explained (or tried to explain) why she didn’t answer Katie Couric’s question about which books and magazines she read, or when she stonewalled on her presidential aspirations. No, I was cringing when Sarah Palin refused to take Oprah’s bait about the presumptive- son-in-law-turned-internationally renowned jerk known as Levi Johnston.
“You were pissed, right?” Oprah asked, referring to Johnston’s incessant blabber-mouthing to the media about the Palin family.
Sarah looked wistful and shook her head. “You know, Oprah, he’s a teenager, he doesn’t realize he’s being handled,” she said. A bit more pushing by Oprah produced comments like, “I want to focus on this most wonderful baby,” and, “Bristol is an awesome mom.”
Maybe Palin’s not ready to be president, but loving Levi—that’s a pretty big-hearted, righteous thing to do—if she was telling the truth.
From the couch, curled in a ball, I muttered, “Oh, puh-leeze, tell it like it is. You hate him. Be real.”
I was muttering from experience. When she was 18, my daughter had also tangled with a jerk. No baby came of it, thank God, but I knew all too well what it felt like to have a teenage boy wreak havoc in your home. “Kev” would text my daughter every fifteen minutes then forget to call for three days. He invited her to the prom then remembered, oops, he had actually already invited someone else. Of course, she still adored him. And he adored her back. Except when he didn’t and made her cry.
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But I remembered. I marched up to the computer and stared into Kev’s face.
“Hello…jerk,” I said.
“Mom!” my daughter cried, stricken. “She’s only joking, Kev.”
“I’m not joking, Kev,” I stated flatly. “You are a jerk. And it will be a great day when you’re away from Fia. She’s too good for you.”
“Uh, hi, Mrs. Welch,” the jerk muttered.
Later, when I told him of the incident, my husband raised his eyebrows in mild disapproval. “Very mature,” he observed. He had a point; what kind of grown-up tries to settle scores by with a dumb teenager on Skype?
Not Sarah Palin, that’s for sure.
“I continue to pray for Levi,” she told Oprah.
And not only that, she wants him to come to Thanksgiving this year.
“He needs to know we don’t have to keep going down this road,” she explained.
“Stop being phony!” I practically shouted, watching her Monday. “You don’t want him near your daughter! If he shows up, you’ll stab him with the carving knife.”
“Levi needs to know he is loved,” Sarah said to hush me.
Now, I will admit, I liked Sarah Palin when she was nominated. Yes, she was woefully inexperienced, but she seemed refreshingly authentic. And, as I am a Republican on most issues, her politics didn’t particularly mortify me.
But as the campaign wore on, I definitely got the same sinking feeling that many others did. “Please, Sarah,” I would implore when I saw her on TV, “say something really smart and informed this time and shock everybody’s socks off.”
She never did. Still, I didn’t hate Sarah Palin in the visceral way most of my friends seemed to. “Sarah Palin is more like America than we are,” I would try to tell them.
But when Sarah quit being governor of Alaska, I gave up the ghost. Here was a woman who needed to pay her dues – for herself and everyone who supported her – but decided instead to hit the speech circuit instead. Worst of all, her excuse was ridiculous tripe. Lame duck, schmame duck. Give me a break.
Fine, fine, I don’t like her either, I finally told my friends. I don’t respect what she’s done.
But during the Oprah interview—the Levi part—I felt not admiration exactly, but ambivalence creeping back in.
If Sarah Palin was telling the truth about wanting to forgive the teenage boy who made her daughter cry, then who was I to judge her? Maybe Sarah Palin’s not ready to be president, I was thinking, but loving Levi—that’s a pretty big-hearted, righteous thing to do.
That is, if she was telling the truth.
Because if Sarah Palin wasn’t telling the truth about Levi, and she was making up all those big-hearted, righteous sentiments, that would kind of make a person really hate her.
And that’s the nub of it with Sarah Palin, isn’t it? Whether she’s real or not. And not just about Levi—about everything. Her past, her values, her hopes and dreams, her ambition. Either she’s the most sincere, decent, can-do, pure-blooded American ever to come out of the woods, or she’s a flat-out pretender. A total fake. A manipulator of her own image and the nation’s emotions.
Either she’s better than we ever imagined—or much worse.
When the Palin family joins hands around the Thanksgiving table this year to pray, only one person will know for sure.
Suzy Welch is a noted commentator and business journalist, is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review, and has written extensively on management and leadership.