He was drawn to her from their first meeting. He liked her and respected her and saw how charming she could be, so he brought her on board, made her his partner, and led her into his rarefied world of insiders and high-stakes politics. That world didn’t understand her at first—nor she, it—and its members tested her, weighing whether she really belonged. But she was spunky and sassy and pretty, and she knew, above all, who she was and where she came from. So, guided by a few trusty advisers, but most of all by her own instincts, she learned to hold her own and, finally, fit in. And, in the process, she taught the insiders how to be, on the outside, just a little more human.
Thus, the plot of Lady Maverick: The Sarah Palin Story, the quaint little narrative the McCain campaign has been attempting to construct, since the first announcement of her nomination, on behalf of Sarah Palin. “Oh, man, it’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider, and someone just not used to the way you guys operate,” Palin declared during the Veep debate. Such clarification was, of course, unnecessary.
If the story sounds more familiar than that, though, there’s good reason. Because it’s also the plot of Pretty Woman. And of The Sound of Music. And of Mean Girls, My Fair Lady, She’s All That, The King and I, Mary Poppins, Pride and Prejudice, The Devil Wears Prada, Legally Blonde, and on and on and on—modern, generally lowbrow takes on the classic Cinderella story (not, mind you, Cinderfella: it’s a story, almost always, about a woman): the tale of the Noble Stranger who is chosen, by fate or a dashing gentleman or both at the same time, to enter the insular lives of the elite, shake them up, and reveal the moral shortcomings of their own pretensions to superiority.
It’s a story, at its core, about class—because the outsider in question, we’re conditioned to understand, is not merely a diamond in the rough, but also an agent of social reform. And it’s one that gives the tired old dichotomies of Palin’s controversial candidacy (conservative politics versus liberal; street smarts versus book smarts; folksiness versus erudition; elitism versus Joe-six-packism; blah versus blah) a Pygmalionesque political implication: that by bringing the outsider onto the GOP ticket and into the party’s echelons, McCain and his team have invited the common to infiltrate the exclusive, thereby daring—expecting?—the former to change the latter from within. It’s straight out of the movies…but, hey, the sincerest form of flattery, and all that.
And it’s an implication the media—if we’re looking at the media beyond the airwaves of Fox News and the pages of The National Review, that is—have challenged. Or, well, tried to challenge. Because the McCain campaign’s very framing of Palin, from the beginning, as an outsider—and as everything that that implies—has been, to some extent, The Narrative to Which All Other Narratives Must Relate. (Is Palin an outsider? What does Palin’s status as an outsider mean for the McCain campaign? Etc.) The “Hi! I’m An Outsider!” button perma-pinned to Palin has been the Veep hopeful’s version of McCain’s “Hi! I’m a Maverick!” one: a label that not only stubbornly sticks no matter how much the media try to scrub it away, but that also—perhaps even more frustratingly for those who try to dissolve it—presents Palin not just as an agent of political ambition, but also as an agent of morality. And as an agent, specifically, of Outsider Morality. Sarah Barracuda, meet Fraulein Maria.
Which is perhaps why the media have shown such glib delight in informing their audiences of the new twist Lady Maverick’s plot has taken this week—in the form of a sequel entitled Sarah’s Shopping Spree: The Moose Hunter Is a Clotheshorse!. And why Palin’s wardrobe dominated the cable news shows yesterday (Mika Brzezinski’s references to Palin’s sartorial proclivities during yesterday’s Morning Joe were in the double digits). And why world outlets picked up the story. Sure, reveling-in-irony may be part of the explanation (the famous Shunner of Elites has been frequenting the Elites’ sartorial stomping grounds!). And, sure, the fact that we’re currently in pre-election limbo may be part of it, too: To everything, there’s a season, and our current season is, apparently, of the silly variety.