There a lot of things one can say about Sarah Palin, but this one cannot be disputed: by one measure, at least, she is true to her word. Sarah Palin is not going anywhere.
That, you'll recall, is what the Alaska governor and former vice presidential candidate told ABC's Elizabeth Vargas on the day before Halloween, "I think that if I were to give up and wave a white flag of surrender against some of the political shots that we've taken, that -- that would bring this whole -- I'm -- I'm not doing this for naught."
When her remarks were widely interpreted as indication of a likely 2012 presidential, she artfully dialed back. The day after the Vargas interview, she told me, "I'll be campaigning for John McCain's re-election in 2012."
That commitment now wiped off the slate by reality's eraser, Palin has set off on a charm offensive that will serve her well should she choose to toss her hat back into the ring of national politics. In this morning's Today show interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, Palin came off as endearingly combative, calling the unnamed leakers quoted in Newsweek "cowards", and cooking a halibut and salmon casserole for Lauer -- while being interviewed.
For the sit-down portion of the interview, which took place in the governor's office, she wore a jacket more reminiscent -- in color, if not cut -- of those she began the campaign with. Her hair was pulled up in a relaxed manner that suggested she did it herself. She denied all the talk about her alleged extravagance in the purchase of her campaign wardrobe, telling Lauer that her campaign duds were being purchased by the Republican National Committee before she ever even arrived in St. Paul for the Republican National Convention. Of Neiman Marcus, the high-end retailer that an unnamed McCain adviser claimed had been "looted" by "Wasilla hillbillies," Palin said, "I've never even been in those stores..."
Far more interesting than her denials, however, was her failure to deny Lauer's suggestion that it was the decision of McCain's people to keep her from the press, and her assertion that she would have liked to talk more to the media (which she once famously derided). "You can't just assume that the voters are going to be able to guess what's going on," she said, and that means talking to the media.
Which she's doing with a vengeance. Literally. Just ask those "cowards" who leaked the allegation about Palin not knowing that Africa is a continent, or that she greeted male campaign staffers while wearing nothing but a towel.
More important, though, than Palin's own self-redemption crusade is the national media's continued interest in her. And who can blame them? Like Barack Obama, Palin is a bundle of contradictions and seeming non sequiturs -- a bundle that represents the tensions in play in the lives of many Americans. In Obama, the tensions of race, culture and the structure of the modern, blended family were all brought into play. In Palin, as Katha Pollitt has sagely written, is the irony of the ambitious and talented woman who embraces a conservative, truly right-wing, worldview. As Lauer interviewed her in her Wasilla kitchen, it may have been the governor herself who made the casserole, but her hunky, blue-collar husband held the baby with utter comfort, patting him nonchalantly as if this is something he does every day (because it is).
I've heard liberals say that Palin's the one they want their president to face in 2012. And given her performance with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, I can understand why.
But Sarah Palin is not stupid. She's no Barack Obama, but she's not dumb. Needs a little schooling, but I suspect she's a quick study. And who knows what the president-elect will face in the next four years? Absent a credible ideology on the real problems facing America -- the economy, international relations, health care -- the Republicans have little left to run on but the culture wars. While that may seem so yesterday, the passage of anti-gay ballot measures in a handful of states on Tuesday proves the wars have not yet ended. And Sarah Palin could prove to be a great warrior icon -- Alaska's own Athena, goddess of hearth and war.
In the Wasilla segment of Lauer's interview, the adorable grade-schooler, Piper Palin, was asked how she would feel if, when she's 11 years old in 2012, her mom came to her and said, we're going run again. (Lauer was not specific as to which office.) Piper turned up her palms and said, with a little laugh, "I don't know."
Her mom didn't miss a beat. "Would you want to do it again, sister?" asked Sarah Palin as she stirred the casserole.
Piper suddenly knew the right answer. "Yeah," she replied.
After all, she hadn't done it for naught.