Sarah vs. Sarah

The wrong frame, through and through

Both Alessandra Stanley in today’s New York Times and Tom Shales in today’s Washington Post wrote stories about Sarah Palin’s showdown with, well, Sarah Palin. On this debate scorecard, Joe Biden was a sideshow.

Stanley writes: “The debate wasn’t so much between Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Ms. Palin as it was between the dueling images of the Alaska governor: the fuzzy-minded amateur parodied — with her own words — by Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” or the gun-toting hockey mom who blazed into history at the Republican convention.”

And here’s Shales: “Palin seemed determined to banish thoughts of her as airheaded and inexperienced; she was really debating her own public image rather than Sen. Joe Biden.”

Recap: It was Real Palin who had to supersede Caricature Palin, as exemplified by Fey’s SNL impersonation of the governor as an inexperienced, insubstantial Annie-get-your-gun candidate.

This problematic frame only serves to affirm that, lo and behold, Palin’s is a battle of images, not issues. And though that’s a sad-but-true state of affairs, it’s a state that leads observers to play Palin’s game too willingly on her terms. Never mind that it was clear last night that Palin wouldn’t beat Biden at the substance game (as her insistence on returning to energy and taxes, regardless of the question posed her, because those were the talking points she was most comfortable with, amply demonstrated). Never mind her incredible statement, during this, the only vice-presidential debate we’re going to have, that she “may not answer the questions that either the moderator or [Biden] want[s] to hear,” which left many a watcher, including this one, with mouth agape.

Framing last night’s debate as a Palin vs. Palin confrontation is the equivalent of throwing up one’s hands and saying, well, with whom can Palin compete? When the answer, for a vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, is her own darned self (or Fey’s portrayal of her), we have a problem. Talk about different playing fields: Here, it’s Palin that gets to throw and catch the Image ball (with the requisite intercept by SNL). Because her image begins and ends with her, it’s hard to lose.

The verdicts? Stanley calls Palin’s performance “a 90-minute sprint to reclaim her identity as a feisty, folksy frontierswoman ready to storm Washington.” Shales, for his part, writes that Fey will have to work hard to “out-Palin Palin,” a clever way of emphasizing the recognition that this is a game of chicken or egg, self-projection or portrayal.

That’s not to say that the analysis in these two stories (which serve the purpose of outlining the various features of Palin’s performance more than praising it) isn’t also correct, even bitingly accurate. But the analysis just supports the argument that the debate was about media representation, billed as self-representation.

That’s what was so infuriating about Palin’s closing statement, in which she stated that she liked “being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they’ve just heard.” She continued, “I’d rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did.” Palin is not only a good media subject, but also good at being one: She knew—and welcomed the fact— that the filter was there, last night just as much as any night.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.