Yesterday I mentioned Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin. I have found myself becoming fascinated in recent days by the way Fey’s mimicry of Palin has taken on an eerie life of its own. This really struck home the other day, as I observed Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin, back on the Katie Couric show after the first presidential debate. Palin was struggling to explain why, almost immediately after McCain had sharply criticized Obama for raising the possibility of sending US troops into Pakistan, she had told a voter: “If that’s what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should.”
It was an embarrassing moment for the Republican team. The best defense they could muster for the gaffe was to argue that we live in an “age of gotcha journalism” – a somewhat confusing defense, since the voter had asked a straightforward question and Palin had responded with a straightforward answer. But to me that wasn’t the interesting part. The interesting part was that suddenly, as I watched Sarah Palin struggling to come up with a viable answer to Couric’s question, I felt as though I was seeing Tina Fey performing her “Sarah Palin in the headlights” impression on Saturday Night Live. The reality had come to resemble the parody.
I’ve checked in the last day or so with various friends and acquaintances, and this seems to be a universally held impression: When the people I know see Palin now, they see the Tina Fey impression superimposed. In a very real sense Fey has managed to hijack Palin’s image. I have been struggling to think back on whether I have ever seen anything quite like this before. Certainly there is a long tradition of entertainers parodying political figures, sometimes with great success. David Frye made an entire career out of his perfectly pitched impression of Richard M. Nixon. Vaughn Meader was so successfully identified with his parody of John F. Kennedy that the assassination of the President in 1963 effectively killed Meader’s career – nobody could ever again look at him without being reminded of their grief over Kennedy.
But people did not look at Nixon and see only David Frye, nor were they reminded of Vaughn Meader when they saw the actual President Kennedy speak. I think we may be looking here at something new — the successful hijacking of a politician’s public image by an entertainer.
And I have a theory about why this is the case: Many politicians are easy to parody. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the two Clintons, and John McCain himself come readily to mind. And yet each of these politicians has risen to prominence, for better or worse, not merely through the force of their charisma, but by virtue of a series of clearly articulated positions that have come to define them in voters’ minds.
In contrast, the Republican strategy has been to downplay Palin’s views, which are considerably more radical and less palatable to most voters than those of her running mate. Instead, she has been running on appearance, style and force of personality, rather than remind voters of her considerably right-of-center views on everything from the censorship of books to the extermination of polar bears.
But this strategy now seems to have backfired. By presenting herself more as a celebrity than as a serious candidate conversant with the issues – the very shallowness that the McCain campaign tried and failed to pin on Obama – she has left herself wide open to purely image-based ridicule.
Perhaps the system is working as it should after all. If you deliberately focus on running as a celebrity, ultimately the public will perceive you, and perhaps even dismiss you, as just that — a celebrity.