As American women are drawn to the Republican vice-presidential candidate, US writer Rebecca Johnson explains her appeal
When my cell phone rang on vacation, I eyed the phone number wearily. It was my employer, Vogue, calling. My four-year-old, just out of the ocean and covered in sand, was whining for a shower. My three-year-old was thirsty. My hedge-fund husband was upstairs on his BlackBerry making plans to buy Dubai. I picked up the phone.
It was the publicist from the magazine calling to say that CNN wanted to interview me about Sarah Palin. My initial response was cool. “What do they want to talk about?”
“You’re one of the few people who has interviewed her for a national publication,” the publicist answered, referring to an article I had written earlier this year profiling the governor of Alaska for the magazine.
“Is she dead?” I asked worriedly. Alaska is notorious for small plane crashes – that’s how the politician father of the writer and journalist Cokie Roberts died – and I knew Palin owned a float plane.
It never really occurred to me that she might be the vice-presidential candidate. With so little time in office, even Alaskans hadn’t yet made up their mind about Sarah Palin’s job as governor of the state.
After the publicist set me straight, I ran down to the beach to find my mother. A left-leaning Quaker who is president of the League of Women Voters in her Texas town, my mother is the least likely person to celebrate the election of a Republican to national office.
But as a young woman she had lived in Alaska, teaching English to natives and living on a houseboat. It was the place she had gone to escape her Southern Baptist country club-attending, bridge-playing parents and it loomed large in our family as a mythic paradise, a place where you could escape the chains of civilisation and reinvent yourself.
As soon as my mother retired from her job as a professor at a community college, we drove the Alaska-Canada highway together, revisiting the site of her early bliss. During that month-long trip, I glimpsed what she saw in the state.
A whole day could go by without us seeing another soul: a solitude that complete could scrub the worst personality clean. The people we met were prickly, opinionated and original. Gore Vidal once famously said that California was so full of oddballs it was as if somebody had picked up the country and shook it so that all the loose pieces landed in the west. These days, the pieces are landing in the north.
With so few people around, conventional wisdom seems irrelevant and laws have a way of seeming arbitrary. When we were ready to sleep, we’d pull off the road and pitch a tent. But the harsh calculus of wilderness also reveals what is essential.
You don’t plan well, you don’t make it through the winter. The wood pile outside Sarah Palin’s parents’ house is half a city block long for a reason. Forget New York City. If you can make it in Alaska, you can make it anywhere. When Sarah Palin says she doesn’t care what we east coast liberals think about her, she means it.
“Sarah Palin is the vice-presidential candidate,” I told my mother when I found her under a beach umbrella.
We hugged each other joyfully. Politics be damned, Palin was a woman and she was an Alaskan! Moreover, I had been impressed with her when I interviewed her – not for her politics (I’m one of those east coast liberals she doesn’t care about) but for the other things that people across the country are responding to right now:her warmth, her work ethic, her “can-do” attitude.
If life is simply a reprise of high school, Palin was the jock who attended church faithfully, ran the soup kitchen, and organised the bake sale. If her paper on the Lincoln-Douglas debate wasn’t the most nuanced, so be it. Something has to give.
In my article, I wrote about how hard it is for Palin not to smile. The American media has been dismissive of that beauty-queen smile but Palin really did enter the Miss Wasilla contest for the scholarship money. (To make extra money, her retired parents currently shoo the birds off the runway at the Anchorage airport so the birds’ bodies don’t muck up the engines’ turbine.) Even then, Palin didn’t like the pageant and was appalled when they asked her to turn around and show the judges her behind.
Once upon a time, I also would have been contemptuous of Palin’s incurable optimism but, having been knocked around by life a bit, I now understand what a gift chronically happy people are given.
Life hands them difficulties -a Down’s syndrome baby, a 17-year-old daughter pregnant before her life as an adult has even begun, a much-needed job on the oil and gas commission that comes with too many strings – and she is not flummoxed or depressed or angry or self-pitying. She endures.
My liberal friends were outraged when rumours about Barack Obama attending a Madrassa or being a Muslim surfaced on the internet, but all week they have been gleefully trading emails of Sarah Palin distortions.
There was the doctored picture of her carrying a rifle, wearing a stars-and-stripes bikini while a man in the background drank Schlitz beer. Or dopey quotes about God, creationism and moose, all of which have been subsequently debunked.
There have also been snide remarks about Wal-Mart and K-Mart, as if there is something shameful about trying to save money. The week before Palin’s nomination was announced, people were talking about John McCain’s inability to remember precisely how many houses he and his gazillionaire wife own. A few weeks before that, the news was Cindy McCain’s $250,000 American Express bill (those lime-green shifts aren’t free).
Todd Palin earns an hourly wage at his job on the North Slope oil field; Sarah Palin makes $125,000 a year as governor of Alaska. They’re not poor, but Alaska, where most things have to be flown or shipped in, is an expensive state and they have five mouths to feed.
Palin isn’t shooting moose for sport; her family eats what she kills. If she shops at Wal-Mart for diapers, the vast majority of American women can relate.
It’s no wonder the latest Washington Post poll shows an unprecedented shift of 20 points among white women towards McCain since he announced Palin as his running mate. Times are hard and getting harder.
In a perfect world, people would vote based on issues. Care about a woman’s right to choose her own biological destiny? (so killing a different humanbeing is choice?) Vote pro-choice (vote to kill babies just because it’s in a womens womb? ). Unfortunately, life is still a lot like high school. We vote for people we like, people who make us feel comfortable and heard.
Having watched folksy George W trounce the patrician Al Gore and John Kerry, you’d think the Democrats would have learned this.
Deriding Palin’s modest background and lack of Ivy League credentials will only turn voters off. We should celebrate what is groundbreaking about Sarah Palin: a card-carrying member of Feminists for Life is a big step forward from Housewives for Life. And then we should talk about the issues.
Rebecca Johnson, Telegraph, UK,11/09/2008