By Ellen Goodman
You have to hand it to Sarah Palin. I don’t mean you have to hand her the 2012 nomination. Nor do you have to hand her the $24.64 I overpaid for “Going Rogue.”
But let us give credit where credit card is due. Remember back in the 1990s when Hillary Clinton described herself as the Rorschach test for how people felt about the women’s movement? Palin has become the latest test for shifting common ground and fault lines between sisterhood and sibling rivalry.
It’s been like this since the Palintologists discovered her in Alaska and put her on the national ticket of the Grand Old (Boy) Party. She brought in-your-face words to conservatism: “To any critics who say a woman can’t think and work and carry a baby at the same time, I’d just like to escort that Neanderthal back to the cave.”
The GOP had been hibernating in that cave for decades. But the moose-killing former governor and mother of five made it politically incorrect for the “family values” crowd to trash working moms. She created a demilitarized zone in the culture wars. Republican women could juggle a BlackBerry and a breast pump. They too could do it all!
At the same time, her appearance on the national ticket, after Clinton’s defeat, challenged the Hillarylanders’ comfy notion that voting for a woman was a feminist act in itself. Especially if the candidate was a pro-life conservative.
Now, we have the rogue elephant book tour, starring Sarah as she bashes McCainites and media. Her memory of the campaign fits a definition of political Alzheimer’s: She’s forgotten everything but the grudges.
Nevertheless, the Newsweek cover photo of the former vice presidential candidate in shorts—originally taken for Runner’s World—is deliberately cheesy enough to make her most earnest opponent wince. Whoopi Goldberg, no Palinophile she, saw sexism in the photo op.
At the same time, even women who are profoundly tired of the fact that we have to be overqualified to win are turned off by a celebrity pol who still won’t admit she was wildly underqualified.
The most authentic parts of the book are not those of a Palin as rogue but as a child and mother. And then there is a series of remarks straight from the Grrrl Power archives.
“I’m a product of Title IX,” she writes. “I was a direct beneficiary of the equal rights effort.”
She gives a shout-out to Gerry Ferraro and a coffee date invitation to Hillary Clinton. Then she nods respectfully to the founding mothers: “Standing on the shoulders of women who had won hard-fought battles for things like equal pay and equal access, I grew up knowing I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Whoa Nellie. Or rather, Whoa Sarah. There’s such a thing as too much self-esteem. The idea that you can be anything you want to be does not mean that you were ready to be vice president because you “knew the history of the [Iraq] conflict to the extent that most Americans did.” This inkblot got the message without the meaning.
Palin repeats the old movement quip that “there’s no better training ground for politics than motherhood.” It’s one (funny) thing to compare politicians to squabbling kids. It’s another (serious) thing to believe anyone can leap from child care to commander in chief. (Memo to the ex-governor: Real moms don’t quit.)
Sarah the Barracuda took the baton from the women’s movement, but didn’t get the message about passing it on. At one point, she remembers thinking, “You know what I could really use? A wife.” This was a cute line in the 1970s. But as a politician in this century she doesn’t offer any policy to help working mothers who need more than “God and Todd.”
“Going Rogue” is short on self-reflection and long on attitude, including blame. But the author is also the female face of the Republican Party. Liz Cheney goes so far as to say that “it would be nothing short of sexist to say that simply she is not a serious candidate.”
More than half of Republicans think Palin is qualified to be president. Well, the book includes a transcript of a beauty contest back in the 1980s when Sarah the Barracuda was a contender. Asked whether she’d vote for a vice presidential or presidential candidate just because she was a woman, Palin answered, “No, I would not vote for someone just because they were a woman.” Sarah’s lesson. Pass it on.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group