Sarah Palin


Sarah Palin’s wardrobe joined the ranks of symbolic political excess on Wednesday, alongside John McCain’s multiple houses and John Edwards’s $400 haircut, as Republicans expressed fear that weeks of tailoring Ms. Palin as an average “hockey mom” would fray amid revelations that the Republican Party outfitted her with expensive clothing from high-end stores.

Cable television, talk radio and even shows like “Access Hollywood” seemed gripped with sartorial fever after campaign finance reports confirmed that the Republican National Committee spent $75,062 at Neiman Marcus and $49,425 at Saks Fifth Avenue in September for Ms. Palin and her family.

Advisers to Ms. Palin said on Wednesday that the purchases — which totaled about $150,000 and were classified as “campaign accessories” — were made on the fly after Ms. Palin, the governor of Alaska, was chosen as the Republican vice-presidential candidate on Aug. 29 and needed new clothes to match climates across the 50 states. They emphasized, too, that Ms. Palin did not spend time on the shopping, and that other people made the decision to buy such an array of clothes.

Yet Republicans expressed consternation publicly and privately that the shopping sprees on her behalf, which were first reported by Politico, would compromise Ms. Palin’s standing as Senator McCain’s chief emissary to working-class voters whose salvos at the so-called cultural elite often delight audiences at Republican rallies.

That possibility was brought to life, for instance, on “The View” on ABC, as Joy Behar, a co-host, noted the McCain campaign’s outreach to blue-collar workers — like an Ohio plumber who recently chided Senator Barack Obama over taxes — after another co-host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, defended the expenditures.

“I don’t think Joe the Plumber wears Manolo Blahniks,” Ms. Behar said.

Advisers to Mr. Obama — as well as those of his rival in the Democratic primaries, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton — said that campaign money was never spent on personal clothing but that potentially embarrassing purchases could be blended into advertising budgets.

Mr. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, however, listed two $400 haircuts as a campaign expense, and after they were detected he struggled to shake an elitist image in his failed Democratic presidential bid.

Such an image is unhelpful at this late stage of the general election, Republicans said, especially when many families are experiencing economic pain, and when the image applies to a candidate, like Ms. Palin, who has run for office in part on her appeal as an outdoors enthusiast and former small-town mayor who scorns pretensions.

“It looks like nobody with a political antenna was working on this,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican political consultant who ran President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. “It just undercuts Palin’s whole image as a hockey mom, a ‘one-of-us’ kind of candidate.”

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, have been described as elitist by both Republicans and Democrats at times, and so much was made when she appeared on “The View” in June in a black-and-white patterned dress. Turns out it sold for $148 at an off-the-rack store.

Few Republican operatives or politicians, even those critical of the McCain-Palin campaign, were publicly criticizing the ticket on Wednesday over the clothing purchases. Some said privately that doing so would be akin to kicking a campaign while it was down.

Others said the issue was tainted with sexism, given that male politicians often spend thousands of dollars on suits.

“She had a legitimate need to purchase clothing to get her through three months of grueling campaigning in the constant spotlight of television cameras,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a Republican consultant in New York. “No one would blink if this was a male candidate buying Brooks Brothers suits.”

Other Republicans said the focus on Ms. Palin’s clothing did not fairly reflect the challenge she faced: Neither she nor her Republican allies expected that she would be tapped as Mr. McCain’s running mate until the last minute, when she was elevated from her comfort zone in Alaska and presented to the nation as the first female Republican vice-presidential nominee.

“If they hadn’t done this, ‘Saturday Night Live’ would be doing jokes where Governor Palin would be dressed in elk skin,” said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant not associated with the McCain campaign.

Party officials, who said they had discussed the matter with McCain and Palin advisers, said all concerned wanted Ms. Palin to present herself as a fashionable-but-sensible on-the-go working mother — a multilayered sartorial strategy, in other words, that has yielded an array of well-cut jackets and skirts, suitable for the different seasons and state climates.

More than $130,000 of the charges used to outfit Ms. Palin and her family were initially footed by Jeff Larson, a prominent Republican consultant in St. Paul whose firm has been tied to the onslaught of negative robocalls about Mr. Obama from Mr. McCain’s campaign. Mr. Larson was also the chief executive of the local host committee for the Republican National Convention, in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Federal Election Commission records showed Mr. Larson was reimbursed by the Republican National Committee for charges at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Barneys New York and Atelier New York, a men’s clothing store.

Other purchases by the R.N.C. included $98 from Pacifier, a children’s boutique in Minneapolis.

Hours before Ms. Palin was to speak at the convention on Sept. 3, a woman burst into the store, said Jon Witthuhn, an owner. After she said she needed something for a 6-month-old boy and was doing shopping related to the convention, it began to dawn on him that he might be outfitting Trig Palin, Ms. Palin’s youngest.

The woman paid for a blue striped convertible romper, a matching monkey-ear hat and socks. Trig Palin appeared on television that night wearing the outfit — without the hat.

Republican officials said all the clothes would be given to charity after the campaign is over. If Ms. Palin kept the clothes, the $150,000 would have to be taxed as income, tax experts said.

Had the purchases been made by the McCain campaign, it would be a conversion of campaign money into personal use, which is prohibited. The same rule does not apply to money from party committees.

“The R.N.C. cleverly used the party committee’s money to avoid the liability that would have occurred if campaigns funds were used,” said Kenneth Gross, a lawyer who is an expert in campaign finance.

Under disclosure requirements of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Ms. Palin would need to report any gifts valued at over $250 from a single giver.

* By PATRICK HEALY and MICHAEL LUO (NYT;October 23, 2008)

I spent the past week in New York, helping my mother recover from surgery. It was a new role for me, taking care of my mom. It must, I think, have been somewhat destabilizing.

Perhaps when previously untapped wells of care-for-others are accessed, there’s no stopping the flow. Or perhaps it was just that, after five days locked in stare-downs with my mother’s cat, my eyes were playing tricks on me.

This may explain why, on Tuesday afternoon when I went to The Times Web site and saw the photo of Sarah Palin with Henry Kissinger, a funny thing happened. A wave of self-recognition and sympathy washed over me.

That’s right — self-recognition and sympathy. Rising up from a source deep in my subconscious. I saw a woman fully aware that she was out of her league, scared out of her wits, hanging on for dear life. I saw this in the sag of her back in her serious black suit, in the position of her hands, crossed modestly atop her knees, and in that “Mad Men”-era updo, ever unchanging, like a good luck charm.


Governor Palin met with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. (Photo: Stan Honda/ AFP-Getty Images)
Why, all of a sudden, was I experiencing this upsurge of concern and kinship? I knew, on the one hand, that this new vision of Palin had to be a mirage. Only a few hours earlier, I’d nodded along knowingly as a band of old-school liberals, gathered in my mother’s apartment to cheer her through her convalescence, tore the Alaska governor apart.

“He’s probably the first Jew she’s ever met,” one older gentleman, who himself had grown up as one of the only Jews in pre-World-War-II Lincoln, Neb., said of her meeting with Kissinger.

“No, there was Joe Lieberman,” his wife reminded him, putting me in a mind of the comedian Sara Benincasa’s utterly hilarious Palin parody, as a chorus of “despicable” and “disgusting” filled the room.

My friend Mary has long said that I have a tendency to develop a Stockholm-Syndrome-like empathy for the people I write about. But I don’t think that’s what was going on here.

I think — before I blinked — I had an actual flash of insight. I think I finally stumbled upon a major piece of the puzzle of how it is that so many Republican women can so passionately claim that Sarah Palin is someone they relate to. (It’s worth noting that polls have definitively shown that John McCain’s Palin gambit has not paid off in attracting disgruntled Democratic women voters.)

That the women who agree with Palin would also like her is not surprising. But the whole business of relating? That has remained mysterious for me. What, I’ve wondered, could the kinds of suburban moms I met, for example, at the McCain-Palin rally in Virginia, some of them former professionals with just two children apiece, one a former grad student making links between Palintology and the work of Homi Bhabha, have in common with a moose-killing Alaska frontierswoman with her five kids, five colleges and pastoral protection from witchcraft?

I think I’ve seen it now. In her own folded hands, her hopeful, yet sinking posture, her eager-to-please look. Sarah Palin is their — dare I say our? — inner Elle Woods.

I had thought of Elle Woods, the heroine of the 2001 and 2003 “Legally Blonde” and “Legally Blonde 2” films, a great deal during the week that Palin became McCain’s running mate and made her appearance at the Republican National Convention. The thoughts didn’t actually originate with Palin; my daughter Julia had recently discovered the soundtrack of “Legally Blonde: the Musical” and then the movies that inspired the Broadway show.

Re-watching the movies with Julia, I’d been surprised at how time, and motherhood, had tempered my affection for Elle Woods — a frilly, frothy blonde who charms her way into Harvard Law School and takes the stodgy intellectual elitists there by storm with her Anygirl decency and non-snooty (and not-so-credible) native intelligence.

I’d found the “Legally Blonde” movies fun the first time around. Viewing them in the company of an enraptured 11-year-old, who’d declared Elle her new “role model” after months of dreaming of growing up to be a neuroscientist in a long braid and Birkenstocks, was another story.

“You can’t,” I’d admonished Julia, “accomplish anything worthwhile in life just by being pretty and cute and clever. You have to do the work.”

“It’s just fun, Mom,” she protested.

Right.

You don’t have to be perennially pretty in pink — and ditsy and cutesy and kinda maybe stupid — to have an inner Elle Woods. Many women do. I think of Elle every time I dress up my insecurities in a nice suit. So many of us today — balancing work and family, treading water financially — feel as if we’re in over our heads, getting by on appearances while quaking inside in anticipation of utter failure. Chick lit — think of Bridget Jones, always fumbling, never quite who she should be — and in particular the newer subgenre of mom lit are filled with this kind of sentiment.

You don’t have to be female to suffer from Impostor Syndrome either — I learned the phrase only recently from a male friend, who puts a darned good face forward. But I think that women today — and perhaps in particular those who once thought they could not only do it all but do it perfectly, with virtuosity — are unique in the extent to which they bond over their sense of imposture.

I saw this feeling in Palin — in a flash, on that blue couch, catty-corner to Kissinger, as her eyes pleaded for clemency from the camera. I’ll bet you anything that her admirers — the ones whose hearts really and truly swell with a sense of kinship to her — see or sense it in her, too. They know she can’t possibly do it all — the kids, the special-needs baby, the big job, the big conversations with foreign leaders. And neither could they.

The “Legally Blonde” fairy tales spin around the idea that, because Elle believes in herself, she can do anything. Never mind the steps that she skips. Never mind the fact that — in the rarefied realms of Harvard Law and Washington policymaking — she isn’t the intellectual equal of her peers. Self-confidence conquers all! (“Of course she doesn’t have that,” said Laura Bush of Palin this week when asked if the vice presidential pick had sufficient foreign policy experience. “You know, that’s not been her role. But I think she is a very quick study.”)

Real life is different, of course, from Hollywood fantasy. Incompetence has consequences, political and personal. Glorifying or glamorizing the sense of just not being up to the tasks of life has consequences, too. It means that any woman who exudes competence will necessarily be excluded from the circle of sisterhood. We can’t afford any more of that.

Frankly, I’ve come to think, post-Kissinger, post-Katie-Couric, that Palin’s nomination isn’t just an insult to the women (and men) of America. It’s an act of cruelty toward her as well.

Author: Judith Warner (NYT; September 25, 2008)

Judith Warner’s book, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” (excerpt, NPR interview), a New York Times best-seller, was published in February 2005. “Domestic Disturbances” appears every Friday.