There is something about Sarah Palin that gnaws at me, and it isn’t that the Republican vice presidential nominee has wilted under the soft light shone upon her by CBS’ Katie Couric. It isn’t that I disagree with Palin on just about every single substantive issue I can think of, and probably some I haven’t thought about.

What’s bothering me about Palin isn’t even Palin. It is that she’s been made into the novelty act — even the freak show — of the presidential campaign.

Her mark in history may well turn out to be like that of the Pet Rock, one of those artifacts that has little value except as an object that is dissected for its cultural significance. During the brief but happy life of the Pet Rock in the 1970s, millions of Americans shelled out $3.95 to purchase an ordinary gray stone, packaged in a small cardboard box complete with an official Pet Rock training manual. The fad petered out in six months, but not before the promoter got rich and thousands of backyards became Pet Rock graveyards.

Now we prepare to watch Palin in Thursday’s vice presidential debate, compelled more by a cult-like curiosity than a call to civic duty.

Certainly some undecided voters may watch because they want to be convinced that the Alaska governor is qualified to be vice president or to determine, once and for all, that she is not. Republicans already attracted to her social conservatism and her family story will be cheering her on and will defend her against any slip or slight, real or imagined. Just as surely, some liberals will be itching to see what material Palin manages to serve up as fodder for Tina Fey and the writers at “Saturday Night Live.”

Palin has become a sideshow: See Sarah stumble through the Couric interviews. Watch clips of Sarah’s beauty-pageant swimsuit competition on YouTube. Laugh uproariously as Tina does a better Sarah than Sarah herself.

This is a terrible predicament not only for Palin but for all American women.

For decades we’ve protested the way we are objectified, only to have a governor running for vice president turned into an object. She is an object of over-the-top partisan projections, from the left and right. She is an object of scorn. And in some quarters, an object of sympathy.

I do not blame Palin for this. Which young, ambitious male governor, upon getting the call to join the national ticket from his party’s presidential nominee, would humbly say, “No thanks, I’m not ready”? Yet some have laid Palin’s failure to turn down the chance at promotion at her feet, as if it were her responsibility — and not John McCain’s — to have chosen more wisely. Some conservatives who just a few weeks ago took delight in skewering liberal feminists with the rhetorical equivalent of Palin’s moose-gutting knife now are aghast at the gaping holes in her knowledge.

McCain and his campaign bear full responsibility. Palin’s initial introduction as one tough reformer turned quickly into a sales pitch for one tough hockey mom, capable of nursing an infant and nudging legislation to passage at the same time. Palin wasn’t expected to know anything about throw-weights. She was there to ease the worries the Republican right harbors about McCain and, it was implausibly suggested, to attract Hillary Clinton supporters to the Republican ticket.

The way Palin was sequestered from the media helped transform her into a calcified figure to be seen but not heard, at least not heard speaking from anything but a script. Like a Pet Rock, she wasn’t supposed to escape from the yard or require genuine training. She only had to stand and absorb every odd projection of the national imagination, however awkward and demeaning a task that might be.

Now Palin goes live alongside Democrat Joe Biden, and an odder couple has rarely shared a political stage. I do not expect Biden to be anything but superior in his knowledge and in the stature he is able to project to a worried public. He will be on guard against condescension. I do not expect Palin to collapse in utter confusion or do anything less than survive — even if she barely survives. But surviving a debate and the post-debate spin isn’t qualification for the vice presidency. That is the nub of it.

Palin’s candidacy isn’t shattering the glass ceiling for her or any other woman. It is killing us with a thousand cuts.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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