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Joanna Weiss

Sarah Palin, the cynical mean girl

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / November 21, 2009

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SARAH PALIN’S sit-down with Oprah Winfrey this week may have been the most tense TV encounter of the year, a palpable mix of suspicion and mutual need. Oprah was good for Obama, but she’s also good for books, and Palin is good for TV. When the two shook hands across the chasm of a coffee table, you wondered if the studio circuitry would blow.

It didn’t, but of all of the interlocutors Palin faced in this week’s “Going Rogue’’ media blitz, only Winfrey managed to cut through Palin’s efforts to cast herself as a victim. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were all too willing to blame Palin’s public relations woes in 2008 on cynical campaign operatives, evil liberals, and the “lamestream media.’’ Barbara Walters framed her as a lovable mom who makes moose hot dogs with cheese.

But sitting on the other side of Winfrey’s skeptical glare, Palin looked too cynical and savvy to play the innocent. Instead, she reverted to the mean girl, the woman who charmed conservatives by slicing gleefully into her foes, whether they be oil barons or community organizers. Her takedown of would-be son-in-law Levi Johnston was nearly virtuosic: All I want to talk about is his beautiful son, whom he hasn’t seen in a while because he’s so busy being Ricky Hollywood . . .

Johnston gives new meaning to the term opportunistic, and clearly deserves Palin’s scorn. But mean girls tend to turn on other women, and Palin’s chief target - besides those evil campaign staffers who forced her to wear designer clothes - is Katie Couric, whom she calls “the perky one.’’ Palin’s book is filled with snide remarks about Couric’s demeanor and her ratings. And Palin offers a new and inventive reason for fumbling so badly on the national stage: She was annoyed.

Couric always seemed to be looming, Palin said, asking relentless questions about policy topics and magazines. She had expected the Couric interviews “to be kind of lighthearted, fun, working mom speaking to working mom about the challenges we have with teenage daughters,’’ Palin told Winfrey. And if that had happened, how many people would have complained that Palin wasn’t being taken seriously - and that Couric lacked the gravitas to helm the evening news?

But Palin has always wanted to have it both ways, to play both sides of the gender card; that’s what makes her both fascinating and frustrating as a public figure. She’s the dragon lady and the ingénue, Rizzo and Sandy, the mom who skillfully wields her baby as a campaign tool, then can’t believe it when the press mentions her kids. She’s the woman with an innate sense of public presentation who declares, whenever she makes a gaffe, that she had no idea what to expect.

It has been this way all week, too: Palin takes her glamour shots in shorts for Runner’s World, then acts stunned when Newsweek puts one on the cover. Palin makes her daughter, Piper, a major character in her book, then gripes that the media always left Barack Obama’s kids alone. (Winfrey had to point out that Obama told the press to lay off Palin’s family, too.)

In truth, the innocent version of Palin has a lot of appeal, as a person and a politician. In “Going Rogue,’’ she writes movingly about her baby, Trig: about learning that he would have Down syndrome, telling her family the news, meeting older kids with Down syndrome on the campaign trail. Female politicians with young families are entirely too rare; too many make the tradeoff between politics and family, or launch their political careers long after their children are grown. It would, indeed, be valuable to have another down-to-earth woman, earnest and informed, in a major position of influence.

But Palin’s rise as a political rock star owes far more to her cynical, glamorous side, the one that matches the other mean girls of the conservative movement - the Coulters and the Malkins who know how to cut down their enemies without mussing their lipstick. It’s the cynical play of the gender card that gets you celebrity treatment and giant advances from publishers. Being a mommy sells policy. Being a mean girl sells books.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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