Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oprah v. Sarah

So Sarah Palin, on her book tour, stopped by Oprah Winfrey's show the other day. I didn't watch it, partially because I was at work, but mostly because I really didn't think I could take watching Sarah Palin for an hour. But one of the loyal readers of this blog told me I should watch some of it on YouTube, so I did.

I only saw a few minutes, but I think that was enough. I like Oprah, I respect her, she's obviously very good at her job, but I can't say I'm a fan. That's mostly because I am not in the target demographic. Talk shows like hers have a purpose, but not for me.

Part of that purpose is to have the conversation that many people are having, but on a national scale, and with a great deal of preparation. What exactly is the purpose of this whole book tour by a failed vice-presidential candidate? Is she running for president? Does she just want to make some money?

Probably both. She's clearly making money, and she's quite probably running for president. Why go on Oprah? She endorsed Obama last year. She has a huge constituency, sure, but she is also very much a card-carrying member of the "media elite."

Watching Sarah Palin on Oprah's show, even for a couple of minutes, I realized something about the ex-governor of Alaska. At one point, Oprah looked highly skeptical, like she was looking at a dead slug. Oprah is, we can assume, not a big fan of Palin. But that's a key part of the appeal for Palin and her base. I could see the slightest hint of fear in Sarah Palin's eyes. She might never admit it, but she's very insecure. She's terrified of Oprah, for the same reason that she's terrified of those "media elites" - they're smarter than her, and much more well-informed than her. They are much more intellectually curious. That's why Charlie Gibson was able to sandbag her with what should have been a simple question - what do you think of the Bush Doctrine? It's why Katie Couric was able to expose her as an intellectual lightweight by asking the even simpler question, What newspapers do you read?

But the fact that Sarah Palin is afraid of someone like Oprah ironically gives her all the more motivation to be on her show. Sarah Palin is incredibly competitive, and the greater the challenge, the more she wants it. You have to respect that. You don't have to like it, but you have to respect someone who takes on that kind of challenge, who is willing to overcome her own personal insecurities and fears on a national stage. Constantly.

This is a big part of her appeal to her base: she's willing to confront people who look down on her. Just the fact that she is willing to do so gives her a certain degree of credibility. It's a self-reinforcing phenomenon. She writes a book because she and her publisher know there will be a market for it. It's already a "New York Times bestseller," which means that someone like Oprah has to take her seriously, at least to some extent. So her base gives her a certain respectability, which she uses to convince Oprah to invite her onto her talk show. Once she's on stage with Oprah, she doesn't have to do much. All she has to do is hold her own. She doesn't have to prove that she's got the solution to global warming or the Israeli-Palestinian problem. All she has to do is maintain her dignity. She has to be enthusiastic, charming, and fearless. She doesn't have to be the smartest person in the room; she has to not be an idiot. She just has to prove that she is worthy of Oprah's attention. Again, a self-reinforcing phenom: her base will show up in enough numbers to demonstrate what they already believe about her: that she deserves not just their attention, but the attention of the entire country.

I don't have a problem with Sarah Palin's lifestyle, although I'm not a fan of the idea of shooting wolves from airplanes. If she wants to eat caribou meat that Todd shot for her, more power to them. But I expect my leaders to be capable of asking difficult questions, not just of their advisors and their opponents, but of themselves. Sarah Palin is very sure of herself. So is Barack Obama; his calmness in the face of challenges and crises is a big part of his appeal for me. But Obama's confidence comes from asking questions, searching for answers, and finding them. In that respect, I think his confidence is earned. I have respect for Sarah Palin's ability to charge ahead, and I think she deserves some of her confidence. But not enough to be president.

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