McCain the Meme-Maker: a First-Blush Look at Sarah Palin 

DENVER, en route to BLOOMINGTON -- On Friday late, as the sparkle and glow from Thursday night's Obama-rama spectacular at Invesco Field was receding slightly, to something like mortal dimensions, a group of Democratic stragglers from Tennessee were hanging in the downstairs lounge of the Marriott Tech Center Hotel. They fell to talking about Republican nominee-to-be John McCain's surprise choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate.

Two members of this tight little group were Will Cheek of Nashville, a former state party chairman and a Democrat's Democrat, and his equally committed wife Joan. Amid what was otherwise a self-congratulatory chorus of dismissal of Palin as a scandal-marred and ultra-conservative non-entity, Joan Cheek demurred.

At 44, she observed, Palin was quite literally a fresh face, not unattractive, and, behind those schoolmarm frames of the governor's glasses, and underneath the hint of cascade in her brunette locks, Joan Cheek thought she saw something else, a still resonant image from vintage popular culture.

"Wonder Woman!" she announced it, not with relish but with what appeared to be sober trepidation....

A word or two, by way of context: Consensus judgments in politics don't happen by accident or right away - any more than election outcomes occur that way. The word "meme" is much in fashion right now. It was supposedly coined by one Richard Dawkins, a believer in (and chronicler of) science and a skeptic about the Deity or anything else transcendent. Even so, when people talk about memes, they aren't focusing necessarily on the technological (or "viral") aspects of those instant (and often enduring) popular mythologies. Like the Londoners of 1944, they presumably know that human hands have launched the e V-weapons that fall in their midst.

Those that hit and make a lasting impact are generally those that are well targeted. Clinton of the loose zipper and Dan "Mr. Potatoe" Quayle of the anti-gravity brain are cases in point. (Warren G. Harding, he of the 'normalcy' neologism, qualified in both those categories.)

"Mythologies," we said a few lines back. To call something a "myth" doesn't belie it. Ask Carl Jung. (OK, his ghost.) But political memes, like some myths, can start out as malicious (or self-serving) fabrications or as the careless templates of a lazy press pack.

"Mean Bob Dole," a truly bizarre way to tag an exemplar of both wit and warmth, was a clear case of the latter, while "Al Gore the Inventor of the Internet" ended up as a press meme but started out at some V-2 base near Peenemunde. The pedigree of "Barack Obama the celebrity" was similar.

Some memes are both concocted ex nihilo and are on point Almost two generations ago, in late 1967, the Republican governor of Michigan, George Romney, was a leading contender for the presidency. The problem was, Romney was a corporate technocrat (as president of American Motors in the '50s and '60s, he had pioneered in the production of compact cars), and he bored reporters silly.

Rather than say that outright (though a few media folks did just that), the men of the working press (women reporters were few and far between, though a few - like Mary McGrory, a kind of Ur-Maureen Dowd, had columnist's licenses) looked for some useable objective correlative. When Romney, an honest soul then tilting against the Vietnam War, confessed that his military handlers had "brainwashed" him on his first tour of the battle zone, the media pounced on the term, turning the soon-to-be-ex frontrunner into a doltish dupe, something out of a sci-fi horror movie.

Not for nothing has that senior Romney's son Mitt cultivated an image so Stepfordesque as to leave no edges hanging out. Blandness, however, is its own punishment, and that fact, along with the obvious animosity that had existed between presidential-primary rivals Romney and McCain may have pushed the 72-year-0ld GOP standard-bearer (a Strangelovian fossil in Democratic memology) into the arms of Sarah Palin.

Yes, she's relatively inexperienced and maybe a little naïve, but Democrats, for obvious reasons, have to walk gingerly on them there eggs. Anything that goes to signify Palin as an "empty-headed woman' will become that most treacherous of memes, the kind that boomerangs back onto its launchers and enables Plain to make inroads, however modest , with a feminist constituency that her pro-life beliefs and hard-right proclivities would otherwise preclude her from.

"Wonder Woman," indeed. Joan Cheek is no sympathizer with Republicanism or credulous sucker for cartoon caricatures. She is a veteran of the entertainment industry who worked on the other side of the camera from the likes of Morgan Fairchild (who, incidentally, made a cameo appearance at Denver). Cheek has labored on the production end In Hollywood, where meme-making was first practiced and first perfected. What she sees in Palin is an image that could go either toward the banal or toward the heroic, but on a giant Imax-sized screen either way. Depending on the reviews and the audience response (and on the memers and counter-memers of either side), she could be leading lady or flop, in either instance transforming the history of the Republic.

Joan Cheek's fellow Democrats, like Palin's fellow Republicans, and like the rest of us, will just have to wait and see.


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