by Pollyanna Sunshine
When I first heard about Sarah Palin’s resignation on NPR last Friday, I too was sucked into the whirlwind of speculation—Is this a preemptive retreat from some looming scandal? Is it the first step in a 2012 presidential bid? Why so rambling and incoherent? What is she saying, and if she has any higher political aspirations, why doesn’t she have somebody competent writing her speeches?
After thinking about this for a few days, seeing what the MSM and blogosphere have had to say and finally reading the full text of her speech—posted verbatim in all its rambling, ungrammatical glory on the gubernatorial website–I am only surprised that so many journalists and commentators persist in reading this move as part of some Machiavellian political scheme. At the same time, I fear the schadenfreude crowd may be disappointed in their hopes of a really, really juicy scandal that would take her down for good.
I think a much more likely, if less dramatic, explanation can be had from a combination of three basic interpretive strategies:
A close reading of Palin’s own words, supplemented by the biographical and historical context of readily available information about her personal and political history, especially the recent Vanity Fair exposé. The upshot: Sarah hates the media (unless they are unequivocally adoring), hates the tedious bureaucratic processes of government, hates pesky ethics questions and the time and money it costs to deal with them, hates Juneau, and hates the “haters,” as she calls anyone who criticizes or questions her. She loves campaigning, loves basking in the glow of an adoring crowd, loves taking credit for distributing surplus money, but her current situation offers fewer and fewer such opportunities. Alaskan journalists report that she’s been basically phoning it in since the presidential election, if not from the very beginning of her term. As one anonymous friend reported, “She hates her life.” Sometimes the truth is really just that simple.
If we want to make it a bit more complicated, we can add:
Economic analysis. In her speech, Palin said quite explicitly and at some length that she and Todd are personally on the hook for over half a million dollars in legal fees for defending against legal and ethical complaints (and Alaskan journalists previously reported that those fees are as yet unpaid). As of Fall 2008, the Palins’ household income was only a bit over $250k and net worth only a little over $1.2 million. This may be affluent enough to make a mockery of her claim to be an “ordinary working-class American,” but it’s not all that much for an upwardly mobile couple in their prime earning years with three underage children (including a one-year-old with developmental disabilities) to raise and support before they can retire, plus a barely-of-age daughter and infant grandchild living at home, in a state with a notoriously high cost of living. It’s certainly not enough to support a newly acquired taste for designer clothes or to pay off massive and undoubtedly still growing legal fees. Palin’s salary as governor is only $125k a year, and her ability to earn additional income is limited by her office: controversy is already swirling over reports of a multi-million dollar advance for Palin’s recent book contract. At the same time, Palin’s national celebrity puts her in the way of millions of dollars a year in speaker fees, media gigs, and other lucrative para-political activities, all free from any legal or ethical limitations or disclosure requirements. An additional eighteen months buried in the Alaska governor’s office, ineffectually battling a recalcitrant legislature over a tight budget and fending off ethical complaints big and small would do absolutely nothing to increase her current value on the conservative media market and lecture circuit, and it is entirely possible that time could significantly diminish her earning potential.
Given the above, it actually makes perfect sense that Palin would quit, despite her insistence that she is Not Quitting, Just Moving Forward to Bigger and Better Things Instead of Going with the Flow Like a Dead Fish. I’m guessing this is precisely the same argument she’s made to herself and others since she first transferred colleges (five times), as well as at the conclusion of her remarkably brief stints as a sports reporter, snow-machine entrepreneur, mayor and member of the state energy commission. Palin’s entire history demonstrates that she embraces new opportunities with gusto and then tosses them aside as soon as they cease to be pleasurable or rewarding–or as soon as she has gotten out of them whatever she needs to prepare herself for the Next Big Move. Sarah “Barracuda” Palin has gotten more than she ever dreamed out of the governorship—a place on the national political stage. Why would she stick around for the “lame” job of actually governing?
But the Next Big Move, I think we can all rest assured, is NOT a 2012 presidential run. I’d like to think that Palin herself has realized that she simply doesn’t have the discipline for and can’t stand the peculiar pressures of a national political campaign. If she has been hurt by previous attempts to dig up dirt on her and the unkind comments directed at her family and herself, it’s hard to imagine she is willing to put them all through that again for a shot at a job that pays only $400k a year and requires a 24/7 commitment to precisely the activities she most hates: negotiating with people who disagree with her, taking advice, being questioned by the press and being stuck in an office far from Wasilla. It should be abundantly clear by now that however powerfully Palin resonates with right-wing Christian voters, she has a very hard time getting along with the real powerbrokers of the party—the wealthy donors, fiscal conservatives and political hacks who are so crucial to any successful GOP campaign. But in the increasingly unlikely chance that she still harbors presidential ambitions, I feel confident in predicting that a Palin primary campaign will either go down in flames or fold like a house of cards within a couple of months. The fact that she didn’t have the sense to prepare (or have prepared for her) a coherent gubernatorial resignation statement makes it clear that she lacks either the desire or the basic political savvy to get anywhere near a successful GOP primary.
And sure, it’s possible her timing was nudged by questions about the financing of The House That Todd Built, and it’s entirely possible those accusations are true. But the Contractorgate investigation is hardly at a level that would have cast her out of the governor’s office before the end of her term, if she’d actually wanted to stay there, and by national political standards (not to mention Alaskan ones), it’s pretty piddly stuff. Frankly, I don’t believe she’s really afraid of any of the ethics questions that have accumulated against her, no matter how true they might be—Palin has an enormous capacity for self-justification and seems quite sincerely convinced that because she is doing God’s will, everything she does has God’s stamp of approval, no matter what the “haters” or intrusive government bureaucrats might say.
Which leads me to my final hypothesis about the peculiar timing, wording and affect of Palin’s announcement—the bizarre combination of self-pitying victimhood and grandiose prophecies of better things to come and the peculiar way in which she marshaled her children as justification for her resignation but never even once trotted out the reliable political-resignation cliché of “wanting to spend more time with her family.”
Psychological analysis. My guess is that what we witnessed on July 3 was a textbook case of the painful downside of narcissistic personality disorder, described by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
Now, I realize that armchair psychology is a dangerous game, and it’s entirely possible Palin is just a garden variety narcissist, a personality type reasonably common among politicians and successful people in many fields. But I think that this hypothesis explains a lot about some of the more perplexing aspects of Palin’s career and persona, particularly the rambling nature of this major announcement and her deer-in-the-headlights affect while giving it. It explains her remarkable rise and astonishing self-confidence despite lack of actual qualifications for most of the jobs she’s held and her extremely thin record of accomplishment in those roles. It explains the absolute sincerity with which she informed reporters that she “didn’t blink” when nominated to the second highest office in the land. It explains why she probably really believes her own inflated rhetoric about Alaska’s central importance to national security and the superiority of small-town mayoralty to congressional service as a qualification for national executive office.
It also offers a possible explanation for the less impressive aspects of her political and personal career. It explains why the tundra is littered with the bodies of former mentors and supporters she has turned on once they’ve served their purpose. It explains why she so insistently and perversely resisted the efforts of McCain staffers to help her prepare for debates, interviews, and national media scrutiny. It explains why she refers to virtually anyone who criticizes her as “haters.” It explains why her resignation statement was such an incoherent mishmash of self-pitying victimhood and triumphalist prophecies of future victory against the sinister forces preparing to take down America.
If I’m right, Palin’s narcissistic personality (whether pathologically disordered or just far too rapidly inflated and then challenged by her unexpectedly sudden rise to the forefront of national politics) also explains the powerful magnetism with which she has charmed so many conservatives. There is something deeply compelling about such complete and utter conviction that one is uniquely destined to accomplish great things—a point that could arguably be made just as well about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, although I want to make clear that I don’t think either suffers from more than garden-variety narcissism, and I am quite sure that at least one has far more intelligence and real accomplishments and both had far more political savvy and campaign discipline than Palin has ever shown any inkling of. And in Palin’s (and Bush’s) case, that personal grandiosity and refusal to countenance opposition meshes nicely with the messianic and apocalyptic rhetoric at the center of conservative Christian politics.
Palin already attracts the kind of uncritical adoration you see in die-hard Clinton and Bush fans, and if she plays her cards right, she can parlay her unexpected political stardom into a lucrative and psychologically gratifying career doing precisely what she did best in the 2008 campaign—rallying the faithful, preaching to the choir, repeating stump speeches filled with folksy clichés, looking good in expensive outfits chosen by a competent stylist—without any of the intense media scrutiny, campaign discipline or relentless work that a career in electoral politics requires, all while maintaining her home base in Wasilla and letting somebody else pay for her travel Outside.
All in all, I think it’s pretty much the ideal way of gratifying Palin’s ambitions while completely disappearing her from the national political radar. It’s really a win-win. The cheers of her self-selected audiences at conservative events all over the nation will undoubtedly fill her with the gratifying sense that she is making a difference on a national scale–and be equally gratifying to the audiences. But since such speeches are almost never covered by the national media and have little substantive impact on the course of political history, those of us who don’t pay to hear them can return to blissful unawareness of her existence.
So long, Sarah. It’s been . . . interesting.
Pollyanna Sunshine is a cybernetic superhero who passes by day as a mild-mannered academic. Her mission: to confront the forces of injustice, stupidity and cupidity with the shining weapons of common sense, compassion and critical analysis and to spread niceness and gladness throughout the land. Her superpowers include eidetic memory, eternal optimism, really fast typing and a bulletproof sunbonnet.