Reality Politics: the Sarah Palin Show

How does the Sarah Palin Show compare with the Ronald Reagan Show?  Reagan was a Hollywood actor who imported his professional acting skills into American politics; Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is an overnight celebrity hockey mom who has allowed her soap opera of a family to become the subject of American politics.

How appropriate, then, that Janet Maslin should review Marc Eliot's new book about Reagan, The Hollywood Years, in yesterday's Times. Maslin explains that Elliot interprets Ronald Reagan as a "serial populist" who figured out a way "to marry the medium that loved him to the message he loved":

“His hem-and-haw frown, complete with the familiar one upraised eyebrow, his shortcut way of expressing doubt, suspicion, anger and moral outrage."

Eliot explains that Reagan screen-tested this look and these mannerisms from his long Hollywood career in movies like Kings Row.  Thus the Reagan Show represented the Hollywood visual mastery of expressing emotions -- doubt, suspicion, anger and moral outrage. Reagan brought stagecraft into American civic life. As a professional actor, he transformed politics into a glossy movie.

Now fast forward fifty years -- to the America of Oprah and the Internet. How is Sarah Palin marrying her medium with her message? When Americans watch Palin, they are staring into the mirror of reality television, of confessional talk shows, of our public cult of feeling and authenticity. Palin's family -- with its idyllic public face and its scandalous secrets -- is an always-on real-life version of King's Row. Fifty years ago, Hollywood was in the business of inventing reality; today, with the Sarah Palin Show, there's no need to invent the reality of doubt, suspicion, anger and moral outrage any longer. As Maureen Dowd suggests in today's Times, Palin's "stuff happens" reality is now flooding America:

Now reality, in all its messy, crazy, funky glory, has flooded the party, in the comely, crackling form of Sarah Palin.

As usual, Dowd is spot-on. Palin will marry her message and medium by crafting herself as a reality television star in American politics. Whereas Reagan hemed-and-hawed his way to President, expect Palin to bring the cathartic tools of participatory media to our "public" life. Her speech in Minneapolis tonight inaugerates the age of reality politics. No, she won't win in '08. But the Sarah Palin Show is the future, it's the natural sequel to the Ronald Reagan Show.