When Sarah Palin encounters a P.R. problem, she often takes to Twitter or Facebook, as she did to thudding effect last week following allegations that her gun-heavy rhetoric might have encouraged the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. But this time, Palin’s first response came via a less familiar source: An aide, Rebecca Mansour, defended her boss on conservative pundit Tammy Bruce’s podcast the day after the shooting. It was the third time Bruce has recently figured into the Palin storyline: This fall, Mansour appeared on Bruce’s show to respond to an unflattering Vanity Fair profile of Palin. And earlier this month, Palin mysteriously retweeted a comment Bruce made slamming opponents of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, prompting speculation about Palin’s own stance on gay rights. (Bruce’s tweet: “But this hypocrisy is just truly too much. Enuf already–the more someone complains about the homos the more we should look under their bed.”)
So who, exactly, is Tammy Bruce? According to her Web site, she’s a “gay, pro-choice, gun owning, pro-death penalty, Tea Party Independent Conservative.” She is nominally independent, but these days her fealty is almost exclusively to Palin: Among Bruce’s weekly podcasts is one devoted to obsessively covering all things Palin (available to members of the “United States of Tammy,” for a $5.95 per month membership fee). Her Web site also features, in a fixed place of honor, a June interview with Palin herself, a friendly confab that concludes with the governor inviting Bruce up to Alaska.
Bruce is a striking woman in her late 40s , with long, dark hair, strong features, and kohl-rimmed eyes. For speaking appearances, she is nearly always clad in forgettable black suits, though she favors a fiercer look—complete with leather jacket—for promotional photos. She’s a Fox News regular, a striving speaker on the Tea Party circuit, and a prolific Twitterer. In the wake of the Arizona shooting, she’s used Twitter to mount a stalwart defense of Palin’s infamous “blood libel” video—and heave sharp criticism at President Obama’s University of Arizona speech—all while the prevailing reaction, even among conservatives, was the opposite. (Bruce on Obama’s speech: “The man many conservatives are praising here on Twitter is responsible for the insanity of blaming innocents from the moment of the tragedy.”)
Bruce makes an unlikely Palin attack dog: She is a Democratic apostate and self-described radical feminist whose name first made headlines in the early 1980s, when, at the age of 19, her ex-girlfriend (and employer), Days of Our Lives actress Brenda Benet, killed herself just weeks after their breakup. Bruce subsequently got involved in the women’s movement, counterprotesting against pro-life activists outside abortion clinics, and, in 1990, became president of the National Organization for Women’s Los Angeles chapter. She went on to work on campaigns for Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, but if she seemed firmly within the feminist fold, she wasn’t a line-toer. She grabbed national headlines in the early ‘90s as a culture warrior of a certain sort, scolding Esquire for a feature on the perfect wife, then taking Knopf to task for the novel American Psycho’s sexual violence. She even kicked up dust on Barbra Streisand’s behalf, calling sexism on the Academy for failing to nominate her directorial effort in The Prince of Tides.
It’s not exactly a straight line between working as Babs’ vengeful angel and Sarah Palin’s; fittingly, though, Bruce’s inflection point involved a third celebrity, O.J. Simpson. Bruce was furious that media attention surrounding his case was preoccupied with race, not domestic violence. She organized a protest march, appeared on Nightline and Larry King, and, in the process, made what then-NOW President Patricia Ireland called “racially insensitive comments.” (Among other things, she reportedly said of Simpson: “You are not welcome here; you are not welcome in our country; you are not welcome in our culture,” a remark that, as Time put it, “some listeners interpreted as ‘Go back to Africa.’ “) After NOW censured her, she quit her post and went back to college, earning a degree in political science from USC. * When Bruce re-entered public life, she called herself a “classical liberal,” but she had in fact completed her transition from the left to the far right. She wrote a couple of books outlining her new views, citing the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal as a key cause of her disillusionment with the liberal establishment. As libertarian feminist Cathy Young (who is not a fan) chronicled in Reason in 2003, Bruce insisted that her beliefs had not shifted—and indeed she did continue calling herself a Democrat well into the aughts. “The funny thing is that my politics haven’t changed at all,” she told Young, adding that the left’s rhetoric about empowering women and other groups was a “charade.”
Today, Bruce says things like, “My feminism is about making choices that empower you,” and “Group power leads to groupthink.” It’s a version of what I heard over and over again at a women’s Tea Party conference I reported from this fall, where women called themselves feminists while denouncing the litmus tests they said liberals had attached to the word. If Bruce doesn’t raise as many eyebrows within the Tea Party as one might expect, it’s partly because Tea Partiers care mostly about the Constitution, liberty, and taxes; they aren’t culture warriors. It’s also useful, of course, for Palin and other Tea Partiers to be able to call a self-proclaimed feminist with Bruce’s sexual orientation one of their own. (Bruce’s speaker bio offers such topics as “Contrary to Popular Belief: How Conservative Ideas Empower Women, Gays, and Blacks.”)
Also key to the Tea Party’s embrace of Bruce: She doesn’t rock the boat on gay rights. She’s involved with a conservative gay rights group, but Bruce’s official position on marriage is that it’s for a man and a woman only—even though she told Cathy Young eight years ago that she supported gay marriage. It’s a telling change; one constant throughout Bruce’s career has been her willingness to shift shapes. Perhaps that’s why she’s been so aggressive about supporting Palin these past couple of years. Bruce’s books didn’t give her a ton of traction, and the right-wing pundit field is crowded. But Palin provides Bruce something specific to hawk—after all, you can’t sell subscriptions, as she does, without sought-after content. For Bruce’s brand to keep growing, she needs Palin’s to keep growing, too.
But what does Palin gain from her association with Bruce? It’s hard to know what to make of her retweet of Bruce’s DADT comment, which seems at odds with Palin’s past positions on gay rights issues. Palin is on the record supporting a federal ban on gay marriage, and while she vetoed a bill denying benefits to same-sex couples in Alaska, she did so on constitutional grounds, saying she would have supported the ban had it been proposed via ballot measure. Palin maintained back then, in that most damning of insistences, that she “has gay friends.” Also, fairly or not, people have seized on Willow Palin’s casual use of homophobic language in her recent Facebook flame wars as an indication that such words might not be off-limits in the Palin home.
And yet Palin said on Fox News earlier this month that she didn’t think DADT should be repealed “right now” because such a battle would expend too much political capital. Her comments didn’t endear her to gay rights activists, but they weren’t a defense of the policy, either. Maybe, despite the endless media scrutiny, we don’t know as much about Palin’s positions as we think we do. Tweeted Bruce—now a bona fide gay friend to whom Palin can point—”I know Gov Palin & this ‘anti-gay’ meme has been a lie—plain & simple. She’s a decent woman & friend to the community.” On her Web site, Bruce added, “No one should be surprised by the fact that a conservative Alaskan woman has a libertarian streak and believes all Americans have a right to live the lives that best suit them.” Of course, it’s also possible that Palin’s position has changed over time, whether cannily or genuinely, as the American public has become more supportive of gay rights and as the culture wars have receded somewhat. If that’s the case, the ability to shape-shift might be one of the things Bruce and Palin recognize in each other.