As Mascot and Martyr, Sarah Palin Debuts On Fox News

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It’s been said before, but let me say it again: Fox News creator Roger Ailes is a genius. His peers in the executive suites of rival networks, newspapers and media conglomerates still hire talent for their abilities. Ailes knows you can also hire talent for who they anger, who they unite and what they represent.

At the start of his show Tuesday night, Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly announced that Palin’s new job at Fox News had already “thrown the left wing media into a conniption.” He played clips from his network’s two competitors, MSNBC (“How can she be a pundit? She doesn’t know anything!” asks Chris Matthews) and CNN (“One more ignorant right winger at Fox News,” says Paul Begala). O’Reilly then offered his studied bafflement. “You are a politician, you are a mom, you are an American,” he said, turning to Palin at his table for the first time as a corporate peer. “What’s the threat?”

Even before Palin answered, the genius of Ailes had crystallized on the screen. The set up was unmistakable. Ailes had not hired another talking head in Palin. He had hired a mascot for Fox News, a living breathing symbol of all that the network hopes to be: a place for the forgotten, besieged, suburban and rural American middle, long victimized, often dismissed, beset on all sides by elites and liberals, haters and foes. Palin took her cue perfectly. “They don’t like the message,” she said. “They don’t like the commonsense conservative solutions that I think I represent, and I articulate as I explain what I believe are some solutions to the great challenges facing America.”

[Before I continue, I must make a disclosure: I am not, as a member of the professional media, qualified to describe Sarah Palin’s debut appearance as a Fox News analyst. As Fox pundit Monica Crowley explained on the network after the former Alaska governor left Tuesday night, Palin “was actually talking over the heads of the media to the American people.” This, explained Crowley, is Palin’s great talent—a rare ability to connect directly with Americans through television. “Nixon did it,” Crowley added, driving home her point. Lacking access to Palin’s most important frequencies, therefore, I must ask that you take this analysis for what it is—an incomplete rendering.]

The Palin that followed on Fox was the Palin that America has long come to know, at once skittish and confident, sing-songy in elocution, repetitive in substance and Palinesque in diction. (As H.L. Mencken once described Warren Harding’s use of English, “It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”) Of Harry Reid’s recently reported use of the word “negro,” Palin said, “His thinking and his articulating of that thought is quite perplexing, is quite unfortunate.” Of the Obama Administration’s standoff with Iran, she said, “The time for talking—that’s enough.” Of Alaska, Palin explained, “I come from a very diverse state.”

To quibble with any of these utterances, in form or substance, would be to simply help fulfill her Fox News destiny. She exists to enrage and rile those paid to pay attention to this stuff, a group who a great bulk of the American people long ago began to dislike for its phony self-importance and its monopoly on their attentions.

To further drive home this point, O’Reilly played for Palin some excerpts from last Sunday’s 60 Minutes, where authors Mark Halperin of TIME and John Heilemann of New York debuted their most damning reporting of Palin’s turn as a vice presidential candidate from their new book Game Change.

Palin denied one charge in the book, sort of confirmed another, and declined to engage a third. Her tack then became saucy. “The rest of America doesn’t care about that kind of crap,” she said at one point. “It’s a bunch of BS from Schmidt and his guys,” she said at another point, in reference to the 2008 McCain Campaign’s top strategist, Steve Schmidt. Of Halperin and Heilemann, she said, “Who knows who these guys are? I don’t know who these guys are.”

At this point, Palin’s performance reached its crescendo, not as news analysis or reporting, but as a restatement of the very mission that has made Fox News so successful. “The American people are immediately neutralizing outlets like 60 Minutes,” Palin explained. “More and more Americans are looking at some of these networks, that biased journalism, and saying, ‘Nah, that gig is up. We’re not believing that stuff anymore.’ That’s why they are tuning into Fox News.” She had become the message. Her mission was accomplished. Her future at Fox is bright.

In short, the Palin debut was a rousing success. She left the show after less than 20 minutes. Then O’Reilly brought on two attractive lady legal analysts to discuss the civil rights implications of public nudity, while the Fox News control room looped tapes of a naked hippie from Ashland, Oregon, first squatting by a waterfall and then bouncing her breasts before a video camera, then squatting by the waterfall, then bouncing her breasts, then squatting again.

It is Ailes’ world, after all. We live in it.