The Sarah Palin Show

She’s pretty great on television.

Sarah Palin and John McCain

Her politics combine an outdoorsy libertarian bent with rigorous fundamentalism in a way that happens to creep me out, and yet I must concede that Madame Gov. Palin makes a charming first impression. The key is her smile, the blue-ribbon-and-collar smile of a red-state pageant queen, a smile like a confident handshake. Would you dare to say it’s more assuring than Ronald Reagan’s? Its grace will only serve her well under the coming pressure—the next stages of her remarkable debut on the national stage. If you don’t yet believe in the smile, then do check out Palin’s expert evasion of a mildly tricky question at the 47:40 mark in this old episode of Charlie Rose.

Charlie: “Do you know what the Bush administration’s energy policy is?” Palin: “Well, we hear about it through the media, yes.” That gosh-darn media, she seethed … prettily. Her teeth sparkled like the bejeweled flag pin on her lapel. It was almost enough to distract from the riposte of fellow guest Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona: “You’re presuming there is one.”

Palin made her big entrance as John McCain’s junior partner on the Republican ticket on Friday morning. There was nowhere to turn for word of confirmation but Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, where the blow-dried talent was only a hair less ruffled than its cable competition. They scrambled to report that Alaska’s governor was an evangelical Christian and a working mother whose outdoor interests included fishing, hockey, and drilling for crude oil in the unspoiled wilderness; I decided that they were rolling her out as a new hope from the Last Frontier. You might call the brand Maverick Matriarch.

With air to fill in the hours before her first appearance on the campaign trail, Fox could not stop itself from repeating, with punishing frequency, a clip of the glamorous governor handling an automatic weapon at the shooting range. Perhaps this was meant as evidence of her foreign-policy experience or of her ties to the NRA. Maybe it was just another excited demonstration of her hobbies. In any event, the heavy rotation of this footage quickly gave Palin the air of an action heroine, some Schwarzenegger cred. She professes the Christian faith, but the imagery was comic-book pagan—Diana, goddess of the hunt.

This was a bellicose intensification of the media image Palin has created, up north, as an all-weather Earth mother to be worshipped by self-sufficient types. Witness this YouTube’d ad  from her 2006 gubernatorial campaign. All politicians use robust visions of their families as selling points, and Palin panders with the best of them. Looking like a promo for some semi-inspirational TLC reality show, the commercial features her family of six doing something fun and productive in and around a seaplane. * Standing on the dock in a forest-green hoodie, Palin makes generic promises about “infrastructure for progress and opportunity” above a jangle of even more generic guitars. When the words “fiscal responsibility” appear on screen, the letters jostle and bounce around a bit—the kind of visual most people associate with Sesame Street. Palin cuddles little Piper—whose smile is as wide as an Obama daughter’s—in way that projects the candidate’s maternal quality as an essential part of her political identity.

Is it “OK” to make that observation? One isn’t sure whether Piper is—to use the term of the times—”out of bounds.” Palin’s pregnant teenage daughter is supposedly out of bounds, according to conventional wisdom. (This mostly means that TV talking heads must resort to heated media criticism in order to talk about the pregnancy—and also that the girl will possibly be spared the airing of her sonograms.) Palin’s infant son is, however, not just in-bounds but a big score in the minds of certain TV personalities.

In June, CNN’s Glenn Beck played host to the governor shortly after the arrival of her youngest. He had her on as a coda to a tone-deaf five-minute harangue about energy policy. “She is suing the federal government over the threatened-species status of polar bears,” Beck rattled before shifting to a soft tone: “First of all, I have to ask you, how is Trig, your newborn?” Beck avoided being outright maudlin by invoking his own experience as “the father of a child with special needs.” Palin, a natural interviewee, gave an answer that was cordial and not too brisk: “He’s an awesome bundle of joy.” She was eager to get to her talking points but happy to have her womb in the conversation.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s “Reliable Source” column declares  it’s quite acceptable to discuss Palin’s looks, imagining there exists some kind of grandfather clause and citing an appearance she made on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show in 2007. The Scotland-born host was preparing for his real-life naturalization as an American with a running joke about lining up some honorary state citizenships. Palin appeared on tape from Juneau, Alaska, having literally let her hair down, and although she dropped her G’s with a slightly ostentatious folksiness, she still must have made the tourist board proud. Extolling the beauty of “God’s country,” she made a playful pitch: “But, Craig, with citizenship comes responsibility. … We would expect you to come visit Alaska. We’ll show you what fishin’s all about. We’ll let you partake of rich, succulent, wild Alaskan salmon.” Ferguson played at being flustered by that succulent (“I think she was kind of coming on to me a little bit”), even though the enthusiastic head-shaking delivery, far more Food Network than Mae West, implied only scrumptiousness.

As this strong woman’s wild ride through an uncharted frontier continues, it’s best to pick our spots when imputing innuendo. That’s out of bounds. Stick to the surface, and think about her grin. No less than Roger Ailes—now the main man at Fox News, once a pioneer of political television—recognized the importance of a decent face while working for Richard Nixon. “Generally,” Ailes wrote of Nixon in a memo, “he has a very ‘Presidential’ look and style—he smiles easily (and looks good doing it).” In The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss reported that Ailes got the job after a casual conversation with Nixon in the green room of the Mike Douglas Show: “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon said of his guest spot. Ailes’ reply was revolutionary at the time: “Television is not a gimmick.” He was hired on the spot, and here we are.

Correction, Sept. 3, 2008: The article originally and incorrectly stated that Sarah Palin had a family of seven when she made a campaign advertisement in 2006. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)