Perhaps we wrote off Sarah Palin a little too soon. Her public appearances have often struck a rum note. She has looked underbriefed, wooden, lacking in spontaneity. She has also earned an unwelcome reputation for cancelling engagements. She is in some trouble at home and is looked upon by more thoughtful Republicans in the rest of the USA as an irrelevance at best, at worst a liability. But her rise was to power in Alaska was no accident. And the last few days have shown that her political instincts - opportunism, low cunning and ability to occupy the moral high ground - are as sharp as ever.
The story, if you haven't been following it, is this. Palin was in New York recently carrying out a number of public engagements; one of her numerous brood, Willow, was in tow. The trip - which included a high-profile visit to a baseball game - inspired a comedic monologue delivered by talkshow host David Letterman on Monday night. Among other things, Letterman compared the governor to a "slutty flight attendant" - a remark that is of course deeply offensive to air hostesses everywhere. As everyone well knows they aren't in the least bit slutty. But it was a couple of one-liners about the Palin child that has got everyone - well, a few people over there anyway - riled up.
One went, "An awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game: during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez". (Alex Rodriguez, or A-Rod, is a popular baseball star.) The other implied that Palin's daughter might appeal to former New York governor Elliot Spitzer, whose taste for prostitutes forced his resignation early last year.
The reaction from the Palin camp has been one of carefully-calculated outrage. In a brief statement on Facebook (of all places), Todd Palin complained that "'jokes' about raping my 14-year-old are despicable. Alaskans know it and I believe the rest of the world knows it, too." Sarah herself, with all the tortured syntax her indignation could muster, made this statement.
Concerning Letterman's comments about my young daughter (and I doubt he'd ever dare make such comments about anyone else's daughter): 'Laughter incited by sexually-perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity aimed at a 14-year-old girl is not only disgusting, but it reminds us some Hollywood/NY entertainers have a long way to go in understanding what the rest of America understands - that acceptance of inappropriate sexual comments about an underage girl, who could be anyone's daughter, contributes to the atrociously high rate of sexual exploitation of minors by older men who use and abuse others.
Letterman responded a couple of days later with a considerably funnier routine, in which he protested that the target of the jokes had actually been the eighteen year-old Bristol, whose talent for getting knocked-up by sporting types is well-known. Bristol wasn't in New York, but the Palin sisters, despite the age gap, look remarkably similar, so I'm prepared to believe that explanation. In any case, it was the Palins who chose to literalise the remarks by highlighting Willow's actual age. Actually, I don't think that the joke was aimed at either Bristol or Willow, so much as at some generic Palin daughter - and, thus, not at the daughter at all but at the mother. Was the joke in bad taste? Yes. Did it imply that the Palin daughters were sluttish? Yes, and that probably did cross a line. Did it involve suggestions of child rape, as the Palins claim? No. I doubt the age of the girl in question even registered with Letterman's gag writer.
It was inappropriate, but the almost gleeful way Palin has milked her indignation goes well beyond a mother's desire to defend her middle daughter's reputation (such as it is). Interviewed on the Today Show, she repeatedly used the phrase "statutory rape" in condemning Letterman's routine. She said that people would have to be "extremely naive to believe that very convenient excuse" and called the affair "a sad commentary on where we are as a culture":
It was a degrading comment about a young woman and I would hope that people start rising up and deciding it's not acceptable. No wonder young girls have such low self-esteem when we think it's funny for a so-called comedian to get away with the remark that he made. This so-called humor, I don't find it humorous, I don't think that a lot of Americans would either...
I would like to see him apologise to young women across the country for contributing to that thread that is throughout our culture that makes us think that it's OK to talk about young girls in that way, it's cool and it's funny to talk about statutory rape. It's not cool it's not funny.
This isn't just an aggrieved mother talking. It's an extremely savvy politician turning a trivial incident into a neat little moral parable in America's culture wars, making the personal political. Note too how she appropriates the language of therapy - province of those despised liberals - to blame lecherous middle-aged comedians for teenagers' lack of self-esteem. She even remembered to express indignation on behalf of all America's besmirched flight attendants.
Palin has been prepared to exploit her elder daughter ever since news emerged of the pregnancy - as she knew it must when she accepted the Vice Presidential nomination. She could have insisted that it was a private matter and insisted the press keep out. Instead, Bristol was made to display public contrition for her fall. There was a mock engagement with boyfriend Levi, the principal purpose of which seems to have been to keep the Religious Right sweet. Bristol, her bump and her soon to be ex-fiancé were then paraded at the Republican convention in a nauseating display of togetherness. Then it was announced - hilariously - that Bristol was to become a national advocate for abstinence-only sex education, despite the fact that (as she herself admitted) the policy didn't work too well in her case.
As for Willow, it must be very unpleasant to have a talkshow host insinuate that she might take after her sister - if that, indeed, is what Letterman was insinuating. But the whole incident would surely have been forgotten much more quickly had not the Palins weighed in. She must be hoping the whole thing will go away. But as a Palin she'll be used to being part of the message.