It’s probably dangerous to admit to a moment of empathy. I’ll either get disqualified from ever becoming being a Supreme Court justice or will be asked to turn in my press card.

But after watching reruns of Sarah Palin’s resignation from the governorship, after hearing every grammatically challenged sentence and inconsistent paragraph dissected by some talk show host, I started to (blush) feel her pain.

There was the frozen smile, the vulnerability, the odd grab bag of unfiltered, unedited, unintelligible un-reasons scattered across the lawn. Palin quit to avoid being a quitter. She cut and run as an act of self-sacrifice. She left her job to serve her country.

It wasn’t like watching a car wreck. It was like watching a midlife meltdown. It was seeing her self-image as a strong, confident, ambitious woman shaken to the core. All that was holding her together was chewing gum, family and a little righteous anger.

What had happened to Sarah the Barracuda? The pit bull with lipstick? The mother of five, moose killer and marathoner who juggled a BlackBerry and a breast pump?

Ten months ago, when John McCain picked her as his running mate, it was like starting a middle-school basketball star in the WNBA. No, the NBA. As governor, she once remarked about an opponent’s ability to spout off facts and figures, “Does any of this really matter?” As a running mate, a McCain aide said, she doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know.

I was among those who harbored the “elitist” belief that a vice presidential candidate should know as much about public policy as, say, Katie Couric. Yet, I delighted in the fact that because of Palin, conservatives lashed out against “sexism,” the religious right described teen pregnancy as a “challenge,” and it became politically incorrect for the most reactionary Republican to criticize working mothers.

I never believed that it would be easy for Palin to go back to Alaska after the bright-lights, big-cities lure of a national campaign. But I didn’t expect this.

“Life is about choices,” she said. I guess her choices were: wrestling with a state Legislature, paying lawyers’ fees to fight ethics investigations, and putting her kids through the wringer. Or making a bundle as an author and speaking star before audiences that adore her.

It wasn’t only “the politics of personal destruction” that pushed Palin over the edge. It was the politics of personal adulation. Even in the aftermath of the resignation, one blogger for said “Sarah Palin sounded just like us! … This is the reason she is wildly popular in the first place. She IS one of us.”

What fans loved about Sarah Palin was her perceived authenticity. She was repeatedly described as “real.” I think it’s what Palin believed about herself.

Even after her resignation, she described her role as governor by saying, “This is who I am. This is what I am.” But, forgive that gosh-darned empathy, this is a woman who hit a moment when she didn’t really know who she was. Or what she wanted.

There have been a lot of comparisons made between Palin’s rambling resignation speech and Mark Sanford’s soul-baring confession of adultery. Sanford fell head over heels in love — “Despite the best efforts of my head, my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body” — in ways that made us squirm for him and Argentina. Palin fell in love with her star turn. What we see are two middle-aged politicians discovering in the most painfully public way that they may not be the people they thought they were.

Sanford is not the strait-laced conservative family man he thought he was. Palin is not the pit bull, lipstick on or off, that she thought she was. The woman who wanted to win didn’t want to govern. The woman who glowed in the limelight wilted in the spotlight. And when the going got tough, she got going … going … gone.

There are some who say that this is a clever gamble to run for the presidency. Searching for clues for the future in this decision is a full-time media occupation. But I’m guessing she is clueless about what she wants next.

“All options are on the table,” she says. But ironically, the soon-to-be-ex-governor and speaker, author and celebrity has only one option. Authenticity? The only job left for Sarah the former Barracuda is to pretend to be a candidate for president. In the middle of a midlife meltdown, the quitter is now the teaser.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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