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Joan Vennochi

Palin, celebrity in chief

By Joan Vennochi
April 15, 2010

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TAKE SARAH Palin out of the mix and yesterday’s Boston Tea Party rally loses its flavor.

Love her or hate her. John McCain’s surprise running mate was the main media attraction – not the crowd of several thousand who gathered on the Common, holding American flags and hand-lettered signs griping about socialists, taxes, and national health care.

For her Boston audience, Palin wore her signature red leather jacket but left most of the political red meat to others. Her speech was a fairly tepid brew. She stuck to standard conservative themes – smaller government and less spending. The difference in world view between the Tea Party and the current White House occupant, she said, is “nothing that a good old-fashioned election can’t fix.’’

Senator Scott Brown could have easily stood next to her without fearing for his political future. He basically gave the same speech when he campaigned for “the people’s seat’’ last January. Maybe the hottest guy on the political circuit didn’t want to share billing with the hottest woman on the political circuit.

Pilloried and declared not-ready-for-prime-time during the 2008 presidential campaign, Palin has yet to show a shred of intellectual depth, nor much capacity for anything other than superficial analysis. But after what happened with Brown, Democrats aren’t ignoring her sound bites, no matter how airheaded they find them. When she criticized President Obama’s recently announced nuclear policy, Obama said, “I really have no response. Because last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues.’’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tremendous power in Washington, at least over House Democrats. But Palin has another kind of power. She commands a $100,000 speaking fee under a contract that calls for first-class hotel rooms and air flights and bottled water served with bendable straws. She has already earned $12 million from her book and TV deals since leaving office as governor of Alaska.

Now, that’s turning lemons into lemonade. But why is it a problem? If there’s a market for your wares, no American turns it down, from Kendra Wilkinson, the ex-Playboy bunny, to Bill Clinton, the ex-president.

Polls show that voters in both major parties question Palin’s credentials as a serious presidential candidate. But she has what it takes to be a serious political celebrity. She also knows how to tap into the emotions that fuel the Tea Party.

Several speakers ahead of Palin devoted time to denials that the movement is racist, violent, or mob-like. Indeed, the crowd on this balmy April morning in Boston didn’t seem sinister, just disgruntled over what is short-handed as “too much government.’’ That complaint did not extend to the extensive police and security details needed for the gathering.

The mostly handmade signs ranged from the benign: “Listen to the people,’’ to the low-brow irreverent: “Washington needs an enema.’’ Much of the program mirrored the talking points and atmosphere of a typical Republican National Convention. There were patriotic songs, country music, and Gold Star mother Debbie Lee who brought tears to the eyes of some in the audience. But Lee also compared insurgents who killed her son in Iraq with “political insurgents’’ in Washington D.C.: “Will you have the same response as my son? Will you say, ‘Roger, that. Let’s go get them?’ ’’ she asked the crowd.

The sharpest rhetoric of the morning came from Mark Williams, the Tea Party Express chairman, who told the crowd, “Political correctness is going to kill us. Political correctness led to 9/11, political correctness led to Barack Hussein Obama. Political correctness is a societal HIV. (America has) a full-blown case of AIDS and we’re the cure.’’

That’s the kind of talk that marginalizes any serious politician who hopes to run for national office. It explains why national Republicans are wary of the Tea Party and why Brown is walking away from a movement that helped him achieve his stunning victory.

Palin is fearless. As an entertainer, not a serious presidential contender, she has nothing to lose and much to gain from tying her name to the Tea Party movement.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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