Being led down the garden path

Sarah Palin and the art of 'Being There'

For more than 30 years, “Network” has set the gold standard in media-related science fiction — advancing the increasingly believable notion that a TV network might actually murder a guy for ratings.

Yet with the latest turn in the spectacle surrounding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the crown for cinematic prescience might have passed to “Being There,” Jerzy Kosinski’s screenplay about a platitude-spouting gardener, Chance, whose green-thumb observations are eagerly mistaken for political brilliance.

Palin and her fans maintain she has been victimized by a hostile press corps and Beltway elitists. After the governor’s July 3 resignation speech, however — which even some one-time defenders described as “rambling,” “bizarre” and “incoherent” — there’s a possibility that those second-guessing Palin’s credentials and acumen were, in fact, too charitable.

Much of the talk about elitism tiptoes around the issue that has gnawed at many Palin critics — namely, that behind her inarticulateness is a genuine lack of intellectual heft.

In essence, Chauncey Governor.

Columnists like Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman contend Palin has “more street smarts when it comes to keeping her name in the news than anyone today on the national scene,” by behaving “like the star of her own reality television series.”

There’s a considerable gap, however, between enjoying “Survivor” and wanting its torch-bearing contestants to have their fingers on the nuclear button.

Even the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Palin’s responses “on too many issues sounded like half-baked spin rather than sincere judgments that she herself had reached or understood.” The paper then softened the blow only marginally by suggesting she needs to add substance “to her natural political talents.”

Indeed, the withering assessment of Palin from those in the conservative media world has gone hand in hand with indignation about liberal critics being unfair to her — unable or more likely unwilling to entertain the thought that detractors were right all along in seeing through Palin’s shiny facade.

If anything, the Palin experience — including post-campaign revelations regarding misgivings about her qualifications and knowledge within John McCain’s staff — invites the question of whether the mainstream media did its job vigorously enough.

Listening to Palin string together cliches and sports metaphors in a manner that reads on paper as all but incomprehensible does evoke memories of Peter Sellers as Chance, the gardener whose simpleminded homilies are confused with metaphorical genius. In “Being There,” the listeners do most of the heavy lifting, filling in the gaps to hear what they want to hear. Far from actively seeking their approbation, Chance is passively swept along with the tide — all the way, potentially, into the White House.

We like to think that the vetting process would never allow such a travesty to occur in the electronic age. But with the world divided into bitterly partisan machines, it’s actually easier to operate largely within a comfort zone of friendly media outlets.

All a candidate really need do is stick to safe havens to mask deficiencies — in Palin’s case, conservative talkradio and frequent chats with Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren. In hindsight, her real mistake was sitting down with the major-network anchors, though even those unflattering interviews merely endeared the then-vice presidential candidate to passionate conservatives based on “the enemy of my enemy”-type logic, yielding a chorus of counter-charges and alibis.

By this strategy, candidates can draw fire from liberals (or conservatives) and wait for the other ideological camp to reflexively spring to their defense — insisting that barbs from David Letterman, of all things, can hound someone from politics.

What’s undeniable is that in the 10 months since McCain plucked Palin from near-obscurity, she has developed millions of supporters. While that might not be enough to win a general election, corralling a party nomination — especially as other contenders unexpectedly fall by the wayside — isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

Therein lies the scary sci-fi narrative that even some GOP partisans now seem to recognize in the Palin drama — the notion that for all our modern media savvy, somebody might be able to fool a whole lot of people for a surprisingly long time simply by being there, spouting Chance-like maxims about how all will be well in the garden.

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