OCTOBER 8, 2008
To try and place the amazing Sarah Palin phenomenon, gurus have been reaching for historical analogues: she "embodies the most basic American myth-- Jefferson's yeoman farmer" (Joe Klein); no, she's "the next Ronald Reagan" (Richard Viguerie); no, "she's our Obama" (Jay Nordlinger). But what about Bill Clinton?
The fitness-obsessed, policy-lite, skirt-wearing conservative from Alaska would not, on the face of it, seem to have much in common with the Big Mac- scarfing, policy-relishing, skirt-chasing Democrat from Arkansas. And yet, before Palin, what other youthful and relatively inexperienced governor from a backwater state burst onto the Washington scene, chased by an eye-popping train of hometown enemies? What other charismatic politician became a culture-war lightning rod? Who else drove his critics to such depths of rage and despair that they reached for wild conspiracy theories (a few of them actually true)?
As anyone who watched last week's "Saturday Night Live" knows, Palin is no Hillary Clinton, and she's certainly no Bill, either. If she makes it into office, she's more likely to build a bridge to nowhere than to the next century. But the more one burrows (an activity that both Clinton and Palin seem to provoke), the more weird parallels between the two emerge (could Todd Palin be Hillary with a goatee?)--and the more liberals might want to look to the Clinton years for direction on how--and how not--to hit back.
'They were particularly attracted to those who were slavish, unobtrusive, and loyal; forceful personalities were not courted, Washington dinner party regulars were shunned--anyone who might be less than worshipful was considered suspect, a probable source of news leaks, a potential enemy." This is how Joe Klein described the Clintons in his book The Natural, but it describes Sarah Palin's political instincts eerily well, too. Attracted to those who were slavish? Check: As mayor of Wasilla, she tried to fire the town's librarian for having the wrong attitude, and she succeeded in firing the police chief in part because she heard he'd been "acting sad and unhappy" about her win at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Forceful personalities were not courted and dinner-party regulars were shunned? Check: In Juneau, Palin neglected to advise powerful Republican legislators on budget negotiations because, explains Larry Persily, a longtime state employee who used to work for her, "she thinks of it as backroom deals, good-ol'-boys network, horse-trading, arm-twisting, politics as usual, the cliche." ("She doesn't do well with dissent," sniffs one GOP state legislator.)
As for turning neighbors and friends into enemies, Palin is as talented in this reverse alchemy as Clinton. In fact, their roster of foes includes the same disgruntled archetypes: the hometown exposeur (Clinton's was Larry Nichols, the Little Rock nemesis who pushed the Gennifer Flowers tale; Palin's is Anne Kilkenny, the Alaska housewife who helped get the saga of Sarah's Wasilla tyrannies into The New York Times); the former supporter turned critic (Clinton's include adviser Dick Morris; Palin's include Lyda Green, the Republican president of the Alaska Senate); the culture warriors (Clinton's were religious right stalwarts like Jerry Falwell; Palin's are horrified feminists like Gloria Steinem); the spouse-hunting prosecutor (Clinton's was Whitewater inquisitor Ken Starr; Palin's is Steve Branchflower, who just subpoenaed husband Todd). They even have matching Troopergates!
It's not too surprising that Clinton and Palin have similar political styles. They were both forged in the cramped and corrupt crucibles of small-state politics, where the political is personal and the rise of one faction often comes at the expense of another. In this environment, an us-versus-them mentality thrives, one that has led both the Clintons and Palin to lash out at their critics as a bloc--the Clintons wailed about the vast right-wing conspiracy and the snooty elites who, Hillary huffed, "wouldn't be doing this if we were from some other state"; Palin complains about the elitist left-wing media and other "opponents" who "seem to look down on" her Alaska background. It has tempted them to put under-qualified former schoolmates in high places, such as Clinton's kindergarten playmate turned chief of staff Mack McLarty and Palin's cowloving high school classmate turned state agriculture official Franci Havemeister. And it's fed the urge to consolidate the spouse onto the political team.
Todd Palin the caregiver dad and snowmobiling--er, snowmachining--champ gives off pretty much the opposite of Hillary Clinton's famed Lady Macbeth vibe. But call around to Juneau legislators and Anchorage political observers and you'll hear grumblings about his shadowy influence, how he was cc'd on official communiques and sometimes attended cabinet meetings. "I don't mean to compare Todd to Hillary, but it's a similar thing," remembers John Bitney, Palin's former legislative director, who, though he still praises the Palins, was fired with an assist from Todd. "He had a network of friends in the bush. [They] would call and say, 'The river's washing away the bank,' and he would pass it on up." Some insiders gossip about how Todd would sidle around the legislators' corridor in the statehouse to lobby lawmakers during gas line negotiations. "I have heard he works the second floor," whispers one statehouse observer. The subpoena an independent prosecutor served Todd last week regarding his role in pressuring the public safety commissioner to sack a state trooper once married to Palin's sister doesn't do much to dispel the odor of Whitewater that clings to Alaska's First Dude.
But what unites Clinton and Palin the most is the unique level of total, complete hysteria they provoke in their critics. Remember Representative Dan Burton, who became so obsessed with proving that Vince Foster was murdered that he recreated the death scene in his backyard, shooting at a melon standing in for Foster's head? These days, conspiracy theorists are back and having more fun than when they imagined that Web Hubbell fathered Chelsea Clinton. (Who do the chat rooms say gave birth to baby Trig today?)
Even more measured partisans can't help being swept up in an emotional tide. Take Salon.com essayist Rebecca Traister's recent Palin-inspired nightmares: "[S]he kidnaps my cats. ... There's also a chilling one, in which a scary witch stands on a wind-swept hill and leers at me." Alaska House Republican Jay Ramras called Palin a McCarthyite. And, in the middle of a phone conversation I had with John Cooper, the museum director Palin fired in her first year as mayor of Wasilla, the line suddenly went silent. I assumed I had just lost the connection, but then I realized Cooper had begun to cry. "You're not supposed to get emotional, but I do," he said, after a pause. He added, "My dad went ashore at Normandy beach. This is not the kind of country he and those guys were hoping to save."
Like Clinton, Palin infuriates precisely because she so fully embodies one side of the culture war. It's just that, instead of symbolizing dissipated baby-boomer elites, as Clinton did, Palin represents anti-intellectual evangelical reactionaries. Now, it's the Democrats who are horrified at Palin's values-- injecting religion into public life, abstinence-only sex ed, antipathy toward global warming, gays, evolution--and afraid of what it would mean if, just as the country blithely accepted Clinton, America turned out to actually like Palin.
But, before liberals go the same extremes that conservatives went to in attacking Clinton, they should remember that Slick Willie had the last laugh. That's why the parallel between Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin could, for Democrats, be a cautionary one. As Republicans fought the culture war through Clinton, hammering him on his sexual peccadilloes and thundering for a reawakening of family values, his administration's popularity only rose--just as the initial spate of attacks on Palin's right-wing values and family choices rallied the Republican base and gave the McCain ticket a bump in the polls.
By fixating on what they didn't like about him as a person, Republicans underestimated Clinton's skill as a politician. Election Day 1998--after a fierce culture-war campaign that included fights with Clinton over gay adoption and attacks over Monica--saw a huge backlash in which Clinton's supposedly beleaguered party picked up seats. That night, the triumphant Clinton team partied until 2:30 a.m. with wine and cigars. Let's not see that scene repeated in November with ice wine and moose jerky.
Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic.