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Dead Tree Alert: Sarah Palin's Alaska

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Gilles Mingasson / TLC / Getty Images for Mark Burnett

The midterms are over, which means that department stores are taking down their Halloween pumpkins and putting up their Election 2012 decorations. And in that spirit I give you, online in advance of its appearance in the print TIME magazine, my early review of the TLC reality show Sarah Palin’s Alaska. (With a spiffy picture gallery to boot.)

Last week TLC launched a website of blogs devoted to the progam, spalaska.com—a URL so awesome the state should seriously consider changing its name—which declared that “Sarah Palin’s Alaska is lots of things… but it is not a political show.”

On one hand, that’s true. The show, kind of a hybrid of a Discovery nature program and Kate Plus Eight, doesn’t have Palin advocating political positions—mostly. (At one point she analogizes a privacy fence on her property to the need for a fence on the Mexican border.) One the other hand: come on.

Let me elaborate on that. When you’re dealing with a major political figure in this day and age, a once and possibly future candidate, it’s hard to determine whether and how any media project of theirs can be nonpolitical. But that’s triply true when you’re considering a politician who has made her family and biography an inseparable part of her political pitch and bona fides, who has used her relationship with Alaska’s nature to buttress political positions (e.g., “Drill, baby, drill”) and who has used Alaskan people and fauna as metaphors and totems (“hockey moms” to “mama grizzlies”).

I’m not saying that this is bad, nor that other politicians don’t do likewise, nor that they shouldn’t. But Palin embodies the idea that the personal is political, and masterfully so. To suggest that she would make a show about all these subjects without a thought about her political presentation—well, if you buy that, I’ve got a Bridge to Nowhere to sell you. The show is fascinating for exactly that reason; there is a reason TLC did not buy a show called “Some Random Woman’s Alaska.”

The other captivating questions are whether doing a reality show (1) means Palin does or does not intend to run for President and (2) whether doing a reality show helps or hurts her in this.

Is she going to run? My opinion on that isn’t worth a Lipton tea bag, but the way I see it, people run for President because they have a following and money, and they want to be the President. Palin has a following and access to money, and I don’t think people run for Vice President because they really wish they were Kate Gosselin. And people with far less chance of winning have run for President, multiple times. (Some people argue that Palin would be a favorite in the primary but would be a long shot in the general election. How many politicians can you name who have ever chosen not to run because they could only win the nomination? If Chris Dodd believed he could move to Pennsylvania Avenue, I think a politician can talk herself into getting nominated and worrying about the rest later.)

But what do I know? I’m just a simple country lawyer.

As to question (2), as I say in the review, it depends on how much you think the traditional markers of authority still matter today. Karl Rove thinks the reality show would hurt a Palin candidacy. But I believe—and I believe that Palin believes—that if she is elected, the only kind of successful campaign she can run is one outside the usual rules of claiming authority, a campaign that is based at least in part on a gut connection with voters. (Whereas if the old rules apply, she’s not going to win anyway, having closed that path by resigning as governor.) And Sarah Palin’s Alaska, at least the premiere episode I saw,  is not exactly setting out to turn her into Jessica Simpson—it portrays her as a hard-working, hard-playing politician/mom who has adventures against a set of Reaganesque backgrounds.

Should she run, and should the series be seen as an asset in broadening her image, it may at least change the way candidates prepare for campaigns in the future. Why pay to make the image ads if someone else will pay you to make them?

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