For more than a year, Sarah Palin has been one of the most famous political and cultural figures in the country.
Even by that standard, though, last week was an extraordinary one.
On Thursday came word that the former Alaska governor was working on a TV series about her home state, currently being pitched by one of television’s top producers. A day before that, her publishers announced she was embarking on a second book, a follow-up to her blockbuster “Going Rogue.” And a day before THAT, she was the prize guest on Jay Leno’s second day back as host of “Tonight” show, along with Olympic champion Shaun White and “American Idol” star Adam Lambert. She ruminated on politics, praising the Tea Party movement, and on journalism, discussing her gig as a Fox analyst. Then she went behind a curtain and returned to perform a full standup comedy routine.
“The truth is, though, I’m glad that I’m not vice president,” she said. “I would not know what to do with all that free time.” Ba dum bum.
A little politics, a little journalism, and a whole lotta celebrity, all in a week’s work. (Her foray to an Oscar gift suite made news, too.) But toward what end? A 2012 presidential bid? A daily talk show? An Oprah-like dominance of the pop culture sphere? Everybody’s dying to know Palin’s plans, and that makes her celebrity all the more potent.
But beyond that, many see her as just the most prominent example of a phenomenon that is larger than even her: the gradual blurring of the worlds of politics, celebrity and the media.
The shifting boundaries of politics and media have been apparent for some time. The networks, especially cable news, have opened doors — sometimes revolving ones — for former speechwriters and campaign operatives. More recent, though, are the trips through those doors of the candidates themselves. Former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has his own show on Fox, for example.
MSNBC pundit Harold Ford Jr., a former congressman, recently decided not to run for the U.S. Senate from New York, but said he hopes another opportunity presents itself. MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, who worked as a Democratic congressional staffer and a presidential speechwriter, has talked about a Senate run from Pennsylvania.
To analyst Marty Kaplan, who often examines the nexus between politics and culture, the phenomenon is troubling. Equal time rules don’t come into play for those merely considering running.
“The question becomes, when does this turn into a conflict?” asks Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. It’s especially dicey when a former politician is using the platform to mull a re-entry into politics, he says. “The networks are in effect being used by these people to rebuild their political futures. There’s enough evidence that they should be thinking twice about this.” But there would seem to be little incentive for Fox to think twice when they have a ratings draw like Palin. As for her, where’s the downside? Fox gives her a platform larger and more potent than her Facebook page, with its nearly 1.5 million fans.
“I wish there WAS a downside for some of these politicians,” Kaplan laughs. “But experience has shown that’s not the case. There’s just no downside to being famous these days.” In other words, it’s all about exposure. Sometimes literally.
Consider Scott Brown, the recently elected senator from Massachusetts, who as a law student posed nude for Cosmopolitan, a strategically placed magazine fold his only fig leaf.
“In the past something like that would have been a nail in the coffin for a politician,” says Kaplan. “Now it’s just seen as humorous and colorful.” (And maybe even helpful.) Not that celebrity has always been viewed as a strategic asset to a candidate.
In the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain and running mate Palin tried to use Barack Obama’s celebrity and pop culture status — how many candidates had bikini-clad models serenading them on YouTube? — as a strike against him. In a famous ad, they interspersed footage of him speaking to adoring crowds with images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
The ad brought some ridicule, but former McCain-Palin campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace says it worked.
“That was one of our most effective ads,” Wallace said in an interview. “The Obama people admitted it threw them off their game a bit. It was effective in driving the conversation.” Indeed, Obama’s campaign worked hard to downplay the celebrity factor at the convention later that summer.
Of course, it’s not lost on Wallace or anyone else that Palin has captured her own spot in the pop culture pantheon. “She was an instant celebrity the moment she stepped on the world stage,” says Wallace, who has left politics for now and is working on a novel.
For Kaplan, the cultural analyst, the melding of the worlds of politics and celebrity is a process that’s gone hand in hand with a redefining of the kind of people we want our leaders to be. It used to be that we wanted a seriousness, a reserve that put a clear distance between them and ourselves, he says.
“Now, though, the quality everyone seems to want is a person we could see having a beer with,” he says.
A pioneer in that regard was Bill Clinton, who readily answered the question of whether he wore boxers or briefs, and went on
Arsenio Hall’s talk show as a candidate to play his saxophone — a clever move that personalized him and led to a long history of
candidates appearing on shows like Leno’s “Tonight.” “Al Gore even appeared on ’Saturday Night Live’ in a hot tub,” says Kaplan,
referring to a 2002 episode. “People said that was a sign he’d given up on politics, but I didn’t think so.”
Palin hasn’t appeared in a hot tub yet, but her delivery of her that scripted comedy routine on Leno last week showed she’s getting comfortable in such settings. In a reference to the notes written on her hand at a recent Tea Party convention speech, she promised Leno before her standup moment: “I will know these jokes like the front of my hand.”
It’s clear that her celebrity wattage could be tarnished somewhat if she announced she was actually planning to run. And a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found more than 70 percent of people — and a majority of Republicans — saw her as unqualified to be president.
For now, though, her lack of any concrete plans makes her endlessly fascinating to many Americans — and enervating to some — and allows her to reside in that blurry intersection of politics, media and celebrity.
“I have no idea what her plans are,” says Wallace. “But clearly she’s made a calculation that there’s no downside to being a megastar on late-night TV. And I think she’s proving to be quite good at it.”