Google "Sarah Palin bus tour" and you'll get well over 900,000 references. As for "Sarah Palin" alone-I haven't even tried it. Millions, no doubt. The bus tour designation is interesting because she kicked it off with only two days' notice, leaving news agencies scrambling to nail down her itinerary no less than her purpose, literally trailing behind the bus with only the foggiest idea where they were going. "They seek her here, they seek her there," like an updated Scarlet Pimpernel. "Sarah Palin plays the media like a violin," chuckled Andrew Malcolm in the Los Angeles Times. Palin fans jeered right along at the way she ran circles around the "lame stream" news organizations who have done her no favors in the past. Her turn now? You betcha!
But if Sarah is a media prodigy, plague, and consternation, she's also a creation of those same reporting and commenting entities. National political figures of this century and the last can hardly help it. In a media-saturated society, especially one dominated by image and story, successful politicians barely get off first base without a "narrative."
Shaping the narrative is a joint project between the subject and those who report or comment on him or her. The result is a "brand"-an easily recognizable personality that fits into one or more archetypal molds. Think of the 2008 election: Barack Obama, the struggling minority who represents the triumph of American promise. John McCain, the battle- and prison-scarred veteran who valued honor more than life. Palin, the powerful new woman out of the old frontier. Joe Biden? As a white guy lacking significant war experience, poor Joe had to get by on gaffes and hair plug jokes. All these narratives have their negative interpretation, in which cynicism and hypocrisy largely figure, and the player whose positive story outweighs the negative is the one who wins.
Few national figures have a more colorful story than Sarah Palin's, and that's exactly where she's most vulnerable. Probably too vulnerable by now to win any national election. And by now, it's very unclear whether she should win, even if she ran. I personally like her and admire her in a lot of ways, but the narrative has become too tangled to follow. She's used the media as much as they've used her-so ubiquitously (reality show, movie, books, Fox News) that in a way we're all in the media van, careening around the highway as we try to figure out where she's going next. She's become too hard to follow, too hard to figure out, and too convoluted to make a straightforward run.