Sarah and Her Tribe

Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin; drawing by John Springs

When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

There’s a moment of near rapture in the video of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul on September 3, 2008. It begins in the eleventh minute, after her Westbrook Pegler quote (“We grow good people in our small towns…”) and before her “lipstick” quip about hockey moms and pit bulls. Following a nervous start, she is now entirely at ease in front of the biggest crowd of her speaking life, and riding high on the chants of “Sarah!” “USA!” and “Drill, baby, drill!” Her smile looks ecstatic, as she allows herself a snuffling chuckle at the acerbity of her own wit, then shows off her repertoire of little nods of self-approbation, complicit left-eye winks from behind her glasses, and lips smugly pursed to signal that an unanswerable point has just been made. When the camera cuts to the crowd, face after face is a joyful mirror image of Palin’s own, as if transfigured by a shared triumph. (Striking exceptions among the faces include those of Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, and Cindy McCain, all of whom register a cautious agnosticism in the presence of the epiphany.) In Going Rogue, Palin and her ghost, Lynn Vincent, write of the speech, “By God’s grace I was having a ball.”

In contrast to Barack Obama, who maintained a detachment verging on aloofness from his most fervent and adulatory campaign crowds, Palin achieved an extraordinary at-oneness with her supporters; not least, perhaps, because she appeared to be such an enthralled fan of her own performances. She managed to endow her threadbare homilies about free enterprise, tax cuts, patriotism, and the evil of government spending with the novelty of her own sudden, fresh-faced presence on the national scene. Most of all, she seemed to embody in her person and her life story the accumulated grievances of the heartland and the West: the resentment in the countryside and the exurbs against the liberal tyranny of the big cities; the antipathy of those she calls “real Americans” toward the “East Coast elites”; the surly resistance of states’ rights proponents to “the Feds.”

Her nasal voice, pitched in the upper register, with the upsy-downsy, singsong delivery of a kindergarten teacher, became, rather improbably, a great electoral asset. Her diction and accent were shaped more by class than region, and spiced with faux-genteel cuss words like “dang,” “heck,” “darn,” “geez,” “bullcrap,” and “bass-ackwards.” It was a voice unspoiled by overmuch formal education and boldly unafraid of truisms and clichés; a perfect foil for Obama’s polished law-school eloquence. In the narrative of the McCain campaign, she was the exemplary real American, Obama the phony one, and when people are now interviewed in the interminable lines for her book signings, by far their most common remark about her…

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