Conservatives who were hoping that Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin could overcome her public relations problems once she was freed from John McCain’s shackles have been dealt a blow by her ill-considered reaction to Late Show host David Letterman’s lurid attacks.
Letterman seized on her visit to New York and attendance of a Yankees baseball game to make a cheap joke, saying that “her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez”, the most highly paid American sportsman, who recently split from his wife.
Letterman’s political gags are heavily weighted against Republicans and this particular one was clearly an attack on conservative family values. Palin’s 18-year old daughter is a single mom.
But the daughter who was with the Governor at the game was her 14-year old. As Julia Roberts’ character said in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake; huge mistake.”
The challenge for Palin was to act presidentially. Americans like to be led by someone they can look up to. Instead, she issued a statement with her husband, Todd:
“Laughter incited by sexually-perverted comments made by a 62-year old male celebrity aimed at a 14-year old girl is not only disgusting but it reminds us some Hollywood/ NY entertainers have a long way to go in understanding what the rest of America understands – that acceptance of inappropriate sexual comments about an underage girl, who could be anyone’s daughter, contributes to the atrociously high rate of sexual exploitation of minors by older men who use and abuse others.”
Admirable sentiments, but not a Presidential approach. Letterman clearly erred. But Palin herself has now publicly exploited the gaffe and, by extension, the 14-year old she should be protecting.
Palin could have called Letterman, listened to him apologize for the identity mistake and then focused on the inappropriate slur he had intended to aim at her eldest daughter, Bristol.
After all, the fact that Bristol is above the age of consent does not make Letterman’s attack any less vicious. He has targeted a young woman unfairly and stereotyped all single moms as “you know whats”.
The type of anger expressed in the statement needed to come from other commentators, not the Governor.
Late night comedians often pick on young celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, who have deliberately built their images around constant and sometimes invasive media attention. But Palin’s kids are clearly not in this category. The convention is to leave politicians families out of the spotlight.
Letterman’s show is watched overseas and tends to feed a view of America that many Americans would not recognize. This joke was designed to reinforce the notion that conservatives are hypocrites when it comes to supporting family as an institution.
Governor Palin attracts favorable reviews from conservatives and, as Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, she bolstered John McCain’s numbers. She is a good communicator with an attractive, folksy yet tough style that both irritates and worries liberals. This, of course, makes her a prime political target for the news media.
Unfortunately for Palin, McCain’s campaign team placed her in interviews with network news liberals Charlie Rose and Katie Couric. Both interviews were mistakes, pitting the strengths of a Washington-insider against her obvious weaknesses – she was new to the national and international stage, largely unknown to the media elite in Washington and, in contrast to Vice President Cheney, had no foreign policy experience.
Palin should have sat through several rehearsals before going up against the veteran interviewers. She clearly went into them under prepared. Compounding these errors, the networks were allowed to edit and broadcast the interviews over multiple nights. They should have been conducted live, if at all.
Governor Palin could do without any more public relations stumbles. She needs a Gordon Reece, the image guru who is credited with creating Margaret Thatcher’s public persona following her election as leader of the UK’s Conservative Party in 1976. Put simply, the Governor’s appearances and statements need to be properly managed if she is to ascend to the highest position.
If she doesn’t get her public relations together, the American media will destroy her political aspirations.
Flying off at half cock against mean-spirited comedians doesn’t help.