Sarah Palin, one tough mama

She may not be humble or politically savvy. But the governor is a rare political species: A strong maternal woman

By Amanda Fortini
July 7, 2009 2:30PM (UTC)
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Republican vice presidential candidate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin hugs her son Trig onstage after her address to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota September 3, 2008.

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hugs her son Trig at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 3, 2008.

While delivering her bizarre, meandering, apparently self-penned resignation speech this weekend, Sarah Palin stood, as she nearly always had during her ten months in the spotlight, with her family at her side. Even as she articulated -- Palin-style -- her manifestly odd desire to avoid the jet-set antics of most lame-duck governors, there seemed another reason, another five reasons, in evidence: her children.


"This decision comes after much consideration, and finally polling the most important people in my life -- my children, where the count was unanimous … well, in response to asking: 'Want me to make a positive difference and fight for ALL our children's future from OUTSIDE the governor's office?' It was four 'yes'es and one 'hell yeah!,' " she said in her strange, not-quite-clear idiom. But entirely clear to anyone watching the ongoing Sarah Palin circus is that her family has been almost unremittingly under siege, the butt of countless jokes since she first declared her candidacy. On Saturday, with her brood gathered once again around her, it seemed implicit that she was leaving, at least in part, to protect them.

One might argue that, like celebrities who court fame and then complain about paparazzi, Palin brought the attention on herself. From the beginning, she made motherhood, and her identity as a mother, central to her candidacy: She was, she told us during her debut at the convention, "just your average hockey mom." (Now she is casting herself as the universal mom, working for "ALL our children’s future.") Never mind that being a mom didn't actually qualify you to be president; the tough mother persona was one we hadn't seen before in a female candidate running at the national level --"the first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big dogs," as Todd Purdum put it, rather less charitably, in his recent Vanity Fair piece -- and for many Americans, it was appealing. By all counts, someone with her diction and general lack of political knowledge and overweening tendency to get in her own way should have been laughed off the national stage a while ago, but Palin has clung on tenaciously, perhaps because she has tapped into some deep vein of psychodramatic symbolism.

Male candidates, of course, have long emphasized their domestic lives as fathers. (See numerous staged photos featuring pinafores and neat side-combed parts.) If they weren't pointing to fatherhood as a legitimate qualification for the presidency -- contrary to popular opinion, Palin's appeal to motherhood wasn't this literal-minded, either -- they were funneling the image of themselves as a parent into a larger, quasi-metaphorical notion of national father figure. Founding fathers, anyone? Our leaders have always been family men. For women, however, the model has usually been the competent female executive, her femininity obscured by pantsuits and a newscaster 'do.


But Palin arrived brandishing a new psycho-political authority; hers was a fierce maternal trope. And it hit a nerve. Perhaps this was because, since the mid-'60s, the divorce rate has risen dramatically (increasing, according to some statistics, by almost 40 percent in the last 40 years), and so many of us of voting age in this country were raised by single mothers, de facto presidents of their own households. Maybe it's that for most people, one's mother is the ur-model of capability, the only person you can imagine running a country while folding the laundry and preparing dinner and disciplining multiple kids. Maybe Palin's emphasis on motherhood made her relatable. Whatever the reason, the "tough mother" unexpectedly turned out to be a potent political archetype for our era. Like a scientist in a laboratory who accidentally spills a substance to create a viable chemical compound, Palin seemed to stumble upon her viable political persona. It was as though she invoked the term "hockey mom," and then realized, "Hey, you betcha, this works."

In the past few months, we have seen her -- to use her own unfortunate term --"milk it" for all it was worth. When David Letterman made a crude joke about her daughter, she didn’t just reprimand him but effectively called him a pedophile. (I criticized Letterman before Palin went on her media rampage.) A short time later, when a Democratic blogger superimposed an image of a conservative Alaskan radio host over Baby Trig's face (in an apparent effort to show how cozy the host was with Palin), Palin issued a statement that blasted the "malicious desecration" of the photo of Palin holding Trig at the convention, an image that, in the words of her spokesperson, "has become an iconic representation of a mother’s love for a special needs child" (as though it is our contemporary Pieta). Neither of the incidents was in good taste, but Palin's response to them seemed to lack all sense of proportion. "She couldn’t ignore the hits on the kids," John P. Coale, a Washington lawyer who has advised Palin, told the Washington Post, by way of explanation. "She said, 'It brought out the mama grizzly in me.' " While this may be true, it's also true that in light of her frequent and self-conscious emphasis on motherhood, her actions sometimes reeked of opportunism. During Saturday's press conference, her kids appeared not only as little victims in need of protection, but also as political tokens and a human media shield.

When it came down to it, Sarah Palin wasn't up to the job of selling Sarah Palin. She was too quirky, too green, maybe even too daft. And the family she constantly invoked may have just been way too large and too unruly, what with the teenage pregnancy and breakup, the baby-daddy's mom in trouble for Oxycontin and the baby with special needs. But whether or not this is the end of Sarah Palin (an unlikely scenario), it certainly isn't the end of the Palinesque character on the political stage. She showed us the appeal of the strong, confident, maternal woman. Maybe she couldn't handle it herself, but it will surely survive as a meme.



Amanda Fortini

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