Jill Johnston On Palin: Little More Than A Smokescreen

As a feminist my emotional response to Sarah Palin has me totally vexed, and I am not alone. I get mail. Many women are secretly ashamed that they like Sarah Palin. One male friend got wind of my admiration of Palin's gutsy attitude and asked whether it was "lust" on my part. Palin admiration is a confessed guilty pleasure, one that might have you lose all your friends on Facebook if it were to become an open secret. Oh, most women say they will certainly vote for Obama, but the whole notion of a women so close to the pinnacle of power is, well, intoxicating. What do women want anyway?

Personal salvation came in the form of an email directing me to author and literary critic Jill Johnston's latest syndicated web column, Politico Schmolitico. The column has Johnston asking the questions: "Who are we, really? What became of us anyway?" She describes herself as a "revolutionary who wanted to end patriarchy," and now finds she might be--"a traitor to women" and a "fierce advocate of a man for president."


Image: Riverside Church, NYC Feb. 8, 2008, credit: Richard Calkins

Through serendipity, good luck, or chaos, Johnston waltzed back into view just in time for me to invite her to join Huffington Post's OffTheBus experiment. Having been afraid to go to lunch with Johnston 35 years ago with my publisher because her intellect intimidated me, I realized this was a chance to retrieve a stupidly lost opportunity. Would she agree to watch the Palin/Biden debate in a virtual format and answer a few questions? Jill was in.


Image: Jill Johnston and Dick Cavett (1973)

A little history is in order here. The Wikipedic Jill Johnston, born May 17, 1929, is an author who wrote the "seminal" Lesbian Nation in 1973.

In an email conversation for OffTheBus, Johnston took umbrage with the full Wikipedia version of her career and had much to say about Sarah Palin.

Dear Georgianne,

From my bio at the end of my letter, it may not be clear that by the early to mid-1980s, I was writing for establishment publications, and completing my education, begun in the late 1970s, to common usage. The two books, Mother Bound and Paper Daughter (1983 and '85) for a start were both published by Knopf, long New York's most prestigious literary publisher. Then it was in 1985 that I began writing both for the Times (the Sunday Book Review), and for Art in America--publications both more than a century old. My Times run lasted 10 years, and I'm still on the masthead of A. in A.

The book on Jasper Johns published in 1996, outgrowth of my work for Art in America, was a research/writing project lasting eight years, and in my opinion my first "mature" work. Its publication was very controversial, ostensibly because I used so much biography in backing up my views and descriptions of the artist's work, but possibly more because of the radical reputation that preceded me.

I saw the Johns book as a tune-up for England's Child, long the book I had seen as my life's goal, and had had quite a few contracts for, beginning in 1969.

Retrospectively, I see Lesbian Nation as a period piece.

"Tarzana from the Trees at Cocktails," the 32-page opener in Lesbian Nation, went on about a lot, but in the main covered those two big events: the fundraising cocktail party in East Hampton in August 1970; and the Town Hall "debate" moderated by Norman Mailer in April 30 1971. Later to be dubbed "Town Bloody Hall."

In the East Hampton party, the piece I wrote was called "Bash in the Sculls" (Bob and Ethel Scull were the hosts), and is reprinted in LN on p119. The major feminists there were Betty Friedan and G. Steinem. Friedan had already called me "the biggest enemy of the movement."--LN also includes reprints of writeups from the Times and Newsday, on the whole sympathetic to my swimming exhibition.

My Town Hall speech appears in LN on p266. It was called "On a Clear Day You Can See Your Mother." Panel members besides Mailer and me were Germaine Greer, the head of NOW Jackie Ceballos, and author Diana Trilling.

I don't find myself perplexed at all. Though I can see how you might have deduced that by my phrase "traitor to women" so close to that describing myself as a revolutionary who wanted to end patriarchy. A while ago Ingrid sent out quotes to our e-list from my 2005 book, At Sea on Land, promoting Obama as our next president. (See pp144-145 in At Sea). I had read his book, Dreams from my Father, and was blown away by it. No woman that I either know or know of could match the identity markers in personal history that I have or feel with him.


Am not sure what Wikipedia means by my "career hampered as a dance critic for the Village Voice with the publication of Lesbian Nation." I had stopped writing formal criticism--of art, dance, happenings, music, et al, - for both the Voice and Art News by 1965, and between that time and 1970 when the lesbians and feminist movement found me, I had been developing the free-style running adventure-of-self column that I carried forward into my movement involvement.

As postscript, by 1975, when my column days were over, and I became (mere) contributor to the Voice, I spent the next five years in primer steps to regain what common usage I had learned in the early 1960s, in order to survive as a writer.


Here is a 10/3/08 comment, derived from an LN quote, linking Town Hall with the Biden/Palin debate.--"Just to appear at Town Hall was to acknowledge Mailer. And to concur in the tacit premise of the occasion--that women's liberation is a debatable issue. In this sense, that the event occurred at all, it was a disaster for women. As a social event, it was the victory of the season."--Translated, Biden/Palin-wise: a disaster for the people (but also for women, see below), the social victory of the season.

That's how I see McCain's use of Palin, in general and in her star role in the "debate" with Biden. One must, as I see it, pass over all the pluses and cons of the event--(e.g. her obvious likeability, attractiveness, admirable damage control in re the Couric interviews, and appeal to Joe Sixpackers and hockey moms and those who speak in her colloquial brand, contrasted with Biden's obvious paternal command of the situation, long senatorial and political experience, ability to actually answer the questions, not avoid them to answer his own or those coached by handlers, concluding that she won on style and he won on substance, all of which I agree with), and ASK: HOW DID SARAH PALIN GET THERE AT ALL.

McCain's announcement the morning after the spectacular close of the Democratic Convention was of course a shocker. Not only had he stolen Obama's thunder, but he was announcing an unthinkable vice-president.

Beyond that, what had he done? Wildly irresponsible, simply outrageous, were a couple of phrases one kept hearing. Very clever strategy has been another.

One agrees with all such astonished phrases, but I think you have to see what McCain did as essentially a PLOY. And in the worst sense: A ruse, a bluff, a gimmick, a hoodwink, a trick, an artifice, wishful thinking, hocus-pocus, etc.

Whether consciously or not: he is trying to put something over on the people, so they won't notice HIM, i.e. what a weak candidate he has been, with small showings at rallies for instance, with a recent history of poor health, his identifications with George Bush, his serious military leanings, his lack of fiscal comprehension.

Call his Alaskan maneuver a smokescreen.

Then, ironically, once he got her, it's true more people showed up for rallies, but he has to keep fatherly tabs on her too, at more private press meetings for instance, to make sure she says the right things, is protecting her from herself, and from damaging him.

To wrap up: I can't take her seriously, or McCain's obvious bluff.

And if the American people do in November we're in much bigger trouble than we appear to be now. Without SP we are already in deep water. As NYT columnist Bob Herbert puts it: "This is such a serious moment in American history that it's hard to believe that someone with Ms. Palin's limited skills could possibly be playing a leadership role."

With her, and the embarrassment it brings, we have not only the possibility of an idiot at the helm of government, but a woman who insults the real gains made by women in politics and other arenas. Not to mention the insult to Hillary, an accomplished intelligent woman I, like many other women, passed over for Obama.

I see McCain's bluff backfiring. I don't think he'll get away with it. There is already tremendous media ridicule. David Letterman for instance has been relentless. And people at large are responding, like a letter writer to the Times pointing out that, "Ironically, the...debate hurt the McCain campaign, because Sarah Palin performed unexpectedly well." She shifted the attention back to McCain and his policies by parroting her handlers.

It's a painful moment in painful times. And I have to add that I feel sorry for Sarah Palin, who will hopefully ultimately see herself as an oblivious victim in a shameful political maneuver by an old Senate hand who should have known better.

CHEERS, and maybe we can have that lunch some day?

Jill Johnston


Since the 1960s, Jill Johnston has been a leading cultural critic and author. She has written columns and criticism for the Village Voice, reviews for Art News, articles for Art in America, and book reviews for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. She is the author of several books, including Marmalade Me; Gullibles Travels;Lesbian Nation; Mother Bound; Paper Daughter; Secret Lives in Art; Jasper Johns: Privileged Information; and At Sea on Land: Extreme Politics. Her recently published book, ENGLAND's CHILD, received a rave in the UK as having "the intrigue of Conan Doyle, the ruthlessness of a John Grisham novel, and the writing craft of Dickens--a real page-turner."Since 2005, the author has been a syndicated webcolumnist.The column appears as "The Johnston Letter" on her website.