Saturday, 4 July 2009

Palin' into insignificance

"I am not wired to operate under the same old 'politics as usual'. I promised that four years ago – and I meant it."

Indeed. Whatever else one says about Sarah Palin, she was never "politics as usual". Politics as unusual, rather. It's appropriate that she should have chosen the Independence Day holiday to issue her own declaration of independence from the political process, for this, too, is an irrevocable separation. Like the sting of the honeybee, resignation is the most potent weapon in a politician's armoury - but, in most cases, it can only be used once. Certainly, I think, in hers.

I reported the death of Sarah Palin's political career some months ago, so I'm not entirely surprised that she has got out before she was dragged kicking and screaming out of the governor's residence. Actually, the manner of her departure was rather stunning, bizarre as only Sarah Palin could make it, but since she became world-famous last August her attachment to her home state - and her job - has been casual at best. Alaskans call her GINO - "governor in name only".

Her resignation speech, paradoxical and rambling as it undoubtedly was, had a more than a touch of the surreal. I particularly relished this classically Palinesque inversion of consensus reality:


It may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: "Sit down and shut up", but that's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out. And a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just hunker down and “go with the flow”. Nah, only dead fish "go with the flow".


Peter Mandelson famously declared himself to be "a fighter and not a quitter". But even a man of his legendary subtlety would surely have had trouble with Palin's apparent belief that the best way of demonstrating her fighting resolve was by quitting; that staying in her job would have been "apathetic". But that's Planet Palin.

Indeed, several of her phrases, taken literally, suggested that she believed that by resigning she was merely doing what is best for Alaska:

"So I choose, for my State and my family... so that Alaska may progress... I will not seek re-election as Governor."

"I am determined to take the right path for Alaska even though it is unconventional and not so comfortable."


No doubt her ever-growing numbers of Alaskan critics will agree with her. Me, I'm looking forward to the inevitable parodies. Tina Fey is probably working on it right now.

Why did she do it? It may be that she has finally succumbed to the pressure. There are rumours in Alaska of a mega-scandal about to break - a "political iceberg" that would sink the SS Palin. Then there was that article by Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair, which stripped away what little credibility she still possessed. Perhaps she just got bored. She may even realise that the game is up - though, given her limitless well of self-belief, it's hard to imagine.

Don't take any notice of those people suggesting that this is a cunning manoeuvre designed to position her for a shot at the presidency in 2012. It's not even clear that she would want the job any more - people close to her are saying that she has had it with politics. Her lack of patience with the niceties of conventional politics has been evident from for some time. If she had been serious about rebuilding her political credibility she would have returned to Alaska and concentrated on doing a good job. That's what the best-intentioned and most experienced of her supporters were urging her to do. Instead she has followed an erratic course that has certainly kept her name in the headlights, but not in a good way. The people who call the shots in the Republican party abandoned her long ago.

But, in any case, even she must realise by now that her hoped-for breakthrough in national politics is not going to happen. That doesn't mean she has had it with public life. It's just that, as Purdum put it, "she may decide that she does not need office in order to have great influence - any more than Rush Limbaugh does". Limbaugh, though, like any successful broadcaster, has a natural way with words. Palin - as yesterday's performance showed - is strikingly awkward, even inarticulate. And the strange thing is that since she came to national prominence she has been getting steadily worse.

She had her chance, no doubt about that: her speech to the Republican convention was inspirational. Indeed, perhaps the most inexplicable element of her career is how she managed to blow it quite so comprehensively. Here was a natural politician who worked her way up from a school PTA to the governorship of one of the most strategically significant states of the Union, who had some real successes to her name and an unconventional, but genuine, mass appeal. Suddenly she was tongue-tied, embarrassingly under-briefed and not a little ridiculous. I cannot believe that - even in Alaska - she could have got so far if she had always been like that. It's as though something short-circuited in her brain. Last year she briefly outshone Barack Obama. This year her only notable public triumph was to extract a public apology from David Letterman over an ill-considered but (had she not made such a big deal of it) swiftly forgotten joke.

And now? Deprived of the political office that ensures that people have to notice her, she may vanish - like the has-been reality TV star that in many ways she is. Her political career has provided a steady stream of ready-to-go controversies and mini-scandals that have at least kept her in the headlines. But without her public responsibilities she will soon be just one more accidental celebrity. Interest will fade. Yet there were some hints in the speech that she at least remains convinced of her destiny.

But I have given my reasons… no more “politics as usual” and I am taking my fight for what’s right – for Alaska – in a new direction. Now, despite this, I don’t want any Alaskan dissuaded from entering politics after seeing this real “climate change” that began in August… no, we need hardworking, average Americans fighting for what’s right! And I will support you because we need you and you can effect change, and I can too on the outside.

There's an ambiguity about that last phrase. "On the outside" means outside the governor's office, of course. But in Alaskan parlance "Outside" means anywhere outside Alaska. She may be quitting rather more than the governor's mansion in Juneau. Apparently she hopes to become a roving campaigner for Republican candidates throughout the USA. Despite everything, she may believe that greatness still awaits.

But if so, then she's delusional. This really is it. Like the Cheshire cat, she will slowly fade from view, until there is nothing left but a wink.

But I will miss her. She has provided me with some of my best material.