In Columbia, S.C., to give a talk on civility, I was surrounded by women who wondered what I thought of Sarah Palin's Newsweek cover.
"Why aren't women coming to her defense?" they asked.
"Why are the media being so rough on Sarah?"
Having been enjoying a self-imposed moratorium on all things Palin, declining numerous interviews to discuss her latest self-promotional tour, I was surprised by the questions. My thoughts lately have drifted toward the sense that, though Palin is very much a celebrity, she's no longer running for public office, at least officially. Ergo, radar gets a rest.
As for her book . . . right after I finish "Ulysses."
But the questions — and the passion with which they were proffered — intrigued me. Are the media treating her unfairly? Are they "bashing" Palin, as her supporters describe any criticism? Was the Newsweek cover sexist?
Call me a guy, but give me a break. Sarah Palin is the luckiest woman on the planet.
Hats off to the girl from Wasilla who, slightly more than a year ago, was virtually unknown and is now on the cover of Newsweek, hawking a book for which she was paid a few million, drawing huge crowds and getting the kind of free publicity most celebrities have to jump on Oprah's couch to get.
Oh, and, yes, she got to sit on Oprah's set as well. And we're supposed to defend/feel sorry for/protect Sarah from . . . what? Wild success, popularity and riches? You must be joking.
I don't doubt the sincerity of those who feel compelled to defend Palin. Women, especially, feel personally diminished when a female candidate is treated unfairly. Some of the commentary aimed at Palin during the presidential campaign was clearly over the top — vile and vicious in some cases — though I would challenge the common assertion that noting her lack of familiarity with national policies and issues constitutes "bashing."
Vile and vicious is standard fare for anyone in the public eye these days. That's no justification for it, ever, but Palin's experience, if higher-profile than most, is not unique. Hence the acute interest in civility.
Palin, meanwhile, is no one's dummy when it comes to political strategy. She knows exactly how to animate her base, and demonizing the media is the most powerful quill in her quiver. That is, by picking fights with the media, she mobilizes her fans against a monolithic enemy — "them" — while getting "them" to give her more ink and airtime.
It's a plan, and it works. Americans, however much they may protest to the contrary, have a soft spot for damsels in distress, no matter how faux the foe.
So Palin doesn't like her Newsweek cover. It's sexist. It's out of context. If you've somehow missed it, the photo shows Palin in black shorts, a red, long-sleeved top and running shoes. She has one elbow propped on the back of a chair draped in an American flag and is clutching two BlackBerrys in her hand. She is smiling.
Originally taken for Runner's World magazine to go with a profile of the former governor, an avid runner, the picture couldn't be any more flattering or wholesomely all-American if Norman Rockwell had painted it. In a word, the photo is fantastic.
It is perhaps sexy, depending on the beholder's eyes, but it couldn't be construed as sexual. Sexist? Would we show a man similarly posed? Only if he positioned himself that way — and looked as good. We've seen dozens of far-less flattering photos of George W. Bush in various athletic pursuits. And who can forget the photo of Barack Obama striding shirtless through the Hawaiian surf?
Yet Palin called Newsweek's selection of the photo "unfortunate." On her Facebook page, she wrote, "When it comes to Sarah Palin, this 'news' magazine has relished focusing on the irrelevant rather than the relevant. . . .
"The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist and oh-so-expected by now. If anyone can learn anything from it: It shows why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, gender or color of skin. The media will do anything to draw attention — even if out of context."
Point taken. Indeed, if anyone can learn anything from this, it shows that one shouldn't judge a book — or a candidate — by its cover.