Sarah Palin and the End of an Era

Jill Lawrence
January 27, 2013

The news that Sarah Palin will no longer be a paid contributor to Fox News puts an exclamation point on the end of an era, or at least a chapter, in U.S. political history. She could land somewhere else, and she still has her Facebook friends, but it’s hard to imagine she’ll find a more visible or influential platform than Fox.

The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee has been fading from the scene for some time, as she inadvertently highlighted when she complained on Facebook during the Republican convention in August that the network had canceled her scheduled interviews that night. Her brother, Chuck Heath Jr., told Alan Colmes last week on Fox Radio that his sister is “kind of laying low right now,” though he wouldn’t or couldn’t say when asked why.

Once the face of an energetic and politically potent Tea Party movement, Palin is leaving Fox at a time when polls show the Tea Party at an all-time low in both membership and favorability. Her departure also coincides with calls by some leading Republicans for their party to stop saying things that erode the GOP brand and turn off voters in droves.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said bluntly this week at a Republican National Committee meeting in Charlotte that the GOP needs to stop being “the stupid party,” and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said he agreed. The two were talking in particular about losing Senate candidates Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, both of whom made inflammatory (and in Akin’s case, flagrantly ignorant) comments about rape.

But Palin, with her flamboyant rhetoric, has stoked her own disproportionate share of controversies. This is the woman who, after all, coined the term “death panels” to describe discussions between patients and physicians about end-of-life treatment (killing a bipartisan proposal for Medicare to reimburse doctors for having those talks); who complained of a “blood libel” against her by “journalists and pundits” after the Tucson shooting rampage that injured Gabrielle Giffords (the phrase historically relates to the charge that Jews murder children to use their blood in religious rituals); and who last fall accused Obama of “shuck and jive” in his statements on the killings of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Benghazi (a racist term dating from slavery days).

Former secretary of state Colin Powell ripped Palin, though not by name, for the shucking-and-jiving remark. He said that and a characterization of Obama as "lazy" (by former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, also not cited by name) played into negative stereotypes of blacks and laid bare a “dark vein of intolerance” within some parts of the GOP.

Palin defended herself by noting other political figures have used the phrase, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and White House press secretary Jay Carney. That’s true, and it’s also true that outside of conservative media, Carney largely seems to have gotten a pass. But Cuomo was roundly criticized when he said it during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign (he was a Hillary Clinton supporter). In fact, during that bitter nomination contest, the media monitored every word from Clinton, her husband and her staff for evidence of racial politics. And we found a number of examples, some more valid than others.

The problem for Republicans is that Democrats nominated and elected a black president – twice now – while they are still trying to fight perceptions they are hostile to minorities and the policies they support. That makes comments like Palin’s particularly harmful.

The shuck-and-jive incident was one of many signs that Palin has not adapted to a changing political environment. Her Dec. 19 interview on On The Recordwith Greta Van Susteren, her final appearance on the network, was like a time warp back to 2008. She still makes up words (“electioning”). She still repeats sentences and phrases, padding her answers with filler. She still talks in vague generalities, leaving one to wonder how much she really knows. At a time when some conservatives reportedly have concluded it’s time to challenge liberalism rather than keep trying to stoke hostility toward Obama himself, she still attacks Obama in highly personal terms (“Mr. Nobel-Peace-Prize- winning president of ours”). Her diction is still, shall we say, unusual (“I believe that it’s many, many things that he would say and do being deceptive”).

Palin also still says weirdly inexplicable things.

When she first heard that Obama had been named Time magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year, she said her reaction was “What the heck has he done really? What has he done except drive us over a fiscal cliff? … Other than that, really, what has he done to unify and make our nation a more perfect union? For the life of me I don’t know, Greta.”

Obama of course has done a lot of things, some of them very polarizing. Palin had an opportunity to invoke Obamacare, gays in the military or any number of moves to back up her point about Obama dividing the nation and, in the view of many, making it less rather than more perfect. It was left to Van Susteren to add a little heft to the discussion, noting that Obama would deserve the designation if it had been awarded for winning a very difficult reelection campaign with a broad swath of demographic groups.

The strangest thing Palin said during that interview was her argument as to why Time’s recognition of Obama was irrelevant. Pointing to herself in seeming disbelief, she said that “yours truly” had made the magazine’s list of the most influential people in the nation and world, and “that ought to tell you something right there about the credence that we should give Time magazine and their list of people.” A bemused Van Susteren replied, “All right. Well. That’s an interesting concept.”

Fox hired Palin three years ago – at a reported $1 million a year – because, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes told The Associated Press, “she was hot and got ratings.” While the terms of her departure are not public, it appears Fox came to the same conclusion as Palin about her diminishing role on the national and world stage.