POLITICS

Sarah Palin Sells Out Her Empathy To Boost Her Personal Brand In Endorsing Donald Trump

She once professed to being a champion of John McCain's heroism and people with disabilities. Now she's the chief backer of a man who proudly denigrates both.

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- When most people think back on Sarah Palin’s F5 tornado of a 2008 vice-presidential run, one of a few lasting images might jump immediately to mind.

If you’re a fan of hers, maybe it's the pitch-perfect line about hockey moms and pit bulls that she ad-libbed at her barnburner of a nomination speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

If you’re not, perhaps it's the Alaska moose-in-headlights moment when she failed to provide Katie Couric with the name of a single newspaper or magazine that she read to stay informed. 

For me, it’s something different.

During the 2008 general election, I was one of less than a dozen journalists who traveled around the country with Palin from the beginning of her campaign to the end of it as an off-air reporter for CBS News.

In this role, I had an up-close view of the woman who most Americans only saw on their TV screens, or -- if they were a supporter -- from whatever vantage point they managed to secure among the cheering crowds that regularly numbered in the tens of thousands around the country.

Palin and I flew on the same chartered campaign plane, laughed in unison as we watched Tina Fey role out her uncanny impression on “Saturday Night Live,” and interacted fairly regularly as fellow travelers on a shared, strange trip -- particularly after she “went rogue” and started talking to her assigned press corps more frequently. 

No matter the campaign’s intended message of the day -- or what McCain’s strategists wanted her to say -- there were two topics that Palin never failed to bring up on her own wherever she went: People with disabilities and the heroism of her running mate, John McCain.

Most of the country saw Palin as a two-dimensional caricature, but I never once questioned her sincerity when it came to these particular causes. After all, I was there when she exchanged a series of heartfelt hugs with a woman afflicted with Down syndrome in Pennsylvania and watched as she lingered to commiserate with Gold Star moms in Indianapolis.

And as my co-author Shushannah Walshe and I reported in our 2009 book, Sarah From Alaska, on election night at McCain headquarters in Arizona, Palin sought to give her own heartfelt concession speech that relied heavily on the two subject matters that she was most passionate about.

The speech, which McCain campaign aides ultimately barred her from delivering, included a particularly touching recollection of Palin's interaction with a boy with Down syndrome named Charlie, whom she had met at a rally in Florida.

“So tonight, a special shout-out to you, Chuck… darlin’,” Palin intended to say in her address in defeat that night. “And let me repeat what I told you, because it applies to you and to all children and adults with special needs across America: You are beautiful, and I am so proud to know that my boy Trig will grow up to be just like you … it’s time America shows you her good heart.”

On her second pet topic -- McCain’s exceptional bravery -- Palin had intended to deliver another particularly eloquent salute:

Above all, I am grateful to the man who took a chance on me. From that moment to this, I have had the rare enough privilege in politics of praising a candidate whose story, character, and personal heroism required no embellishment. I said things about him -- about how valiantly he has served and what he has overcome -- things he could not say about himself, because he is that kind of man. It would be a happier night if elections were a test of valor and merit alone, but that is not for us to question now. Enough to say it has been the honor of a lifetime to fight at the side of John S. McCain.

Perhaps it was for the best that McCain's aides did not allow her to give the speech that night. If they had, Palin may have felt a tinge of the shame that appeared to be entirely lacking during the full-throated endorsement she gave Donald Trump on Tuesday night.

Trump, you’ll recall, is the Republican presidential front-runner, who in July unapologetically declared that McCain -- a former Vietnam War prisoner of war who spent five-and-a-half-years in captivity, and endured torture at the Hanoi Hilton -- was “not a war hero” before adding a memorable addendum, as only he could.

"I like people that weren't captured, OK?” said Trump, who has pointed to a “foot thing” as one reason why he received a series of deferments during the Vietnam era.

And, yes. Trump is also the same guy who in November stood on a stage and performed a crude imitation of a New York Times reporter who suffers from a physical disability.

Now, imagine for a moment that we’re back in 2008 during those tumultuous autumn weeks when the markets were melting down and Palin was seeking to lift the GOP ticket to an unlikely comeback through the sheer force of her personality.

What if then it had been a Democrat who’d questioned McCain’s heroism or mocked a person with a disability in front of a cheering crowd?

How might Sarah Palin have responded to that? 

I have a pretty good guess. Let’s just say that the echoes of righteous indignation would’ve been audible from here to Wasilla.

Until her shameless endorsement of America’s most famous bully, Palin largely had been loyal to McCain -- the man who plucked her from relative obscurity in Alaska and made her a household name.

At the height of the Tea Party wave, for instance, Palin endorsed and campaigned for McCain against his conservative challenger during a tough 2010 Republican primary fight in Arizona.

And McCain, in turn, has offered nothing but public praise for his former running mate in the ensuing years.

Still, Palin’s endorsement of her fellow reality TV star shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Politically, Palin and Trump have much in common in their anti-establishment instincts, ideological fluidity and eagerness to use vitriol as their most potent weapon against adversaries.

And in several ways, Trump’s campaign represents the realization of the grievance-driven populism that Palin first brought to national prominence eight years ago.

Her endorsement wasn’t a surprise to me. Palin had made her intentions pretty clear on this front back in July when she argued with a straight face that, hey, Donald’s a hero, too -- just like McCain!

Much like Trump, Palin’s every public move these days appears intended to boost her brand -- the brand that has made her untold millions of dollars since she quit her day job in mid term back in 2009, but has become less potent by the year since then.

And for a fading celebrity-politician in desperate need of a new jolt of attention and influence, the ability to give Trump a much-needed boost among conservatives in Iowa was a temptation too powerful to turn down -- it made sense in the context of Palin's need to maintain whatever is left of the political image she so carefully protects.

It probably didn’t make a whole lot of sense to McCain though -- or to Charlie.

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