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What is it about Sarah Palin?

The departing Alaska governor doesn't just line people up on different sides of an issue; she turns them against each other.

July 09, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

When Sarah Palin announced her resignation as Alaska governor, I did what any self-respecting "liberal media" smirker would do. I gleefully noted all the mean, clever things I could write about her.

But as the days went by, I realized that was probably too easy.

I decided to call my friend Kimberly Speranza, a Christian conservative who loved Palin from the moment the governor became the Republican vice presidential nominee. I wanted to know, after the scandals and ethics investigations and now the resignation, was Kim still behind Palin and, if so, was she insane? Could she help me understand why Palin drives her detractors -- people like me -- even more insane?

Readers of this column may recall my visit with Kim and her husband last fall, when we got together for dinner and watched Palin's acceptance speech at the GOP convention, an event they found inspiring and I found frightening, though this didn't stop us from having an enjoyable evening together. After the election, Kim said, Palin kind of dropped off her radar. She hadn't paid much attention to the tabloid coverage surrounding Palin's daughter, Bristol, and her former fiance, nor did she necessarily give credence to the ethics investigations being conducted against her in Alaska. But Kim, whom I count among my dearest, funniest and often wisest friends, continues to admire Palin, mostly from what she calls a faith-based perspective.

"You have to understand that, as a Christian woman, she's very exciting," she told me. "It hasn't traditionally been the role of the Christian woman to, for instance, stand side by side with her husband rather than shrink into the background. But the fact that she talks about her faith and remains a powerful woman is appealing, particularly to women."

Kim allowed that Palin's inarticulateness can often be painful to hear and that she was clearly unprepared for the vice presidential campaign. "McCain did a disservice to her and to the party," she said, although she also maintains that the media treatment of Palin was unprecedented and merciless.

And though she does not want to see Palin run for president -- "I don't see how she could without compromising the values that make her appealing to her followers" -- she's even less keen to see her become a television star or celebrity author. Instead, she'd like to see her do more -- potentially a whole lot more -- of what she does best, namely rallying the deeply conservative troops.

"Her taking the celebrity route would disappoint me," Kim said. "If that happens, I'll still like her, but I'll probably write her off. My pipe dream, honestly, is that she'll start a third party. There's a large group of people like me looking for something politically to attach themselves to. I think because of her drive and her spunk and the purity of her message -- and the way it says you don't need to have the highest education to have your values respected -- she could be a real catalyst for something very new and different in politics."

Let me guess, now you're going insane. If you love Palin, you're vexed by the idea that a nice Christian woman like Kim would hang around with a strident, secularist crab like me. If you hate Palin, you're flabbergasted that I could be friends with such a "wingnut." As a result, you're angry at me as well as her. Doesn't that feel good?

I'm speculating, but it isn't a reach. When I wrote about Kim last fall, in addition to the predictable partisan rants and the gasps of "how could you possibly be friends?", a few readers accused me of something especially troubling: They thought I was condescending to Kim and her husband -- that I owed them an apology.

I forwarded one such e-mail to Kim, and her response showed an uncanny -- and unapologetic -- self-awareness: "This letter writer thinks that 'outing' me as someone with my belief system is inherently condescending," she said. "He thinks we can't possibly be friends unless you pity me as some kind of bumpkin. He owes us both an apology."

So here's why Palin inspires such extremes of adoration and acrimony; why she makes us so totally nuts. Palin doesn't just line people up on different sides of an issue; she turns them against each other. It's not enough to hate her; you also have to hate those who don't. Or, if you like her, the attacks on her make it difficult to imagine having any use at all for her enemies. Palin somehow makes the culture wars personal; she's their ultimate symbol. And war is hell, no matter what form it takes.

On the other hand, friendship -- especially across a divide -- is priceless. Maybe Palin's exit from public life will allow a few more to flourish.

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