It's useful to glimpse celebrities doing the regional circuit: Away from the flattering lights of Broadway or Hollywood, you see what kind of performer they are. Can they handle a stripped down stage and a drunken heckler?
I was thinking this as I watched Sarah Palin "perform" in a "hospitality center," called Carmen's Banquet Hall, on Thursday night in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, a steeltown about 45 minutes west of Toronto.
The event was a charity fundraiser for inner-city Hamilton kids. My father and I attended as guests of the Toronto Sun newspaper, a sponsor of the event. Palin collected a fee somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000 (according to which press report you read) for a speech, book-signing, and VIP photo-session. Some 900 people paid $200 per plate to hear Palin speak and to bid on Palin-phanalia: signed posters; McCain-Palin election flotsam; personalized Sarah Palin vintages of Ontario wine; and the big prize, the actual upholstered seats from which she and an interviewer would take questions after the speech. (The seats ultimately sold for C$3400.)
A thick police presence safeguarded Palin against the one lone protestor. He carried a placard, "Honk for our healthcare." No one honked.
We parked and joined a sea of guests dressed to the nines, as if for a wedding. Palin had issued elaborate advance rules: No jeans. No cameras or recording devices during the speech. (It was permitted to photograph her as she drifted through the lobby.) No questions from the media during the question and answer portion of the evening.
The lights dimmed. Bagpipes heralded the entry of the head table. Todd Palin filed in-but not Sarah. Where was she?
Once the others were seated, there was an anticipatory hush as the crowd looked toward the doors. John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town" suddenly blasted over the sound system. Then in burst Palin with her signature wave.
I've attended dozens of these dinners over the years. I've seen Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher speak. I've never witnessed anything like this kind of solo rock start entry.
The charity had clearly negotiated maximum value for its money. Palin entered at seven, but was not scheduled to speak until nine. My dad and I sadly assessed the "Alaskan crab bruschetta" pre-set in front of us. I poured us each a glass of Ontario's finest, and opened up the "Scrabble" app on my iPhone.
Before the program began, the dinner chair had warned the audience that nobody was to approach the dais uninvited. Again, I've never before attended a political dinner at which it was thought necessary to say such a thing out loud. (If anyone ever drunkenly worked up the courage to do so, a Reagan or Thatcher would be unfailingly gracious while a security guard swiftly intervened to escort the guest back to his or her seat.) And as the evening proceeded, a preselected few were escorted up by charity officials to say hello. But no one else dared to do so.
It might seem--may I say elitist?--for Palin to flinch from chatting or signing autographs. And it became apparent that this impulse wasn't, in the end, out of her desire to receive celebrity treatment a la Angelina Jolie or Alex Rodriguez (God forbid a random Joe Six Pack wearing jeans might actually approach her to ask for an autograph!): Clearly, Palin feared any unscripted or unmanaged engagement--and not for what the unscreened person might do or say, more out of her own insecurity about what she might do or say.
Well, she's been burned a lot, you might argue--and burned more than most politicians in her situation. Yes and no. Politics, as the cliché goes, is a rough game--and she has not been put through any more of a personal wringer than, say, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich or any other political figure who steps up to the plate in the Big Leagues. She's just proven less adept at taking it.
So who cares, really--except that her entire image is based on her own projection of a fearless, moose-dressing, rifle-wielding, backwoods kind of gal who can take it; who indeed can take anything and, with fire and a bit of salt, turn it into a tasty stew. (As she told the tea partiers on the Boston Common last week: "Is this what 'change' is all about? I want to tell 'em: Nah, we'll keep clinging to our Constitution and our guns and our religion--and you can keep the change.")
But as I was witnessing at this regional performance--far away from the ruthless Beltway critics, surrounded by friendly, polite Canadians paying to see her for goodness' sakes--she would not risk even a single random encounter. One of my tablemates was a reporter who had been awarded an "exclusive" interview with Palin before the dinner--part of the deal of the Sun's sponsorship of the event. Palin had given her 30 minutes, then just before the interview cut it back to 15, and then five minutes. Five minutes. Just enough time to have her photo taken and answer one question (which turned out to be the familiar, Are you running in 2012?). And even that question had to be submitted in advance.
Finally, Palin surmounted the podium. The crowd gave her a standing ovation and then sat back, waiting to get their $200-per-plate worth.
Dinner speeches by politicians normally adhere to a few simple rules. The politician begins by thanking her hosts and any person in the room who might be insulted if overlooked. She follows with a couple of tested jokes. Then she speaks for approximately 20 minutes (this is key for a dinner-time speech, when the audience is tired), making no more than three key points. It's not rocket-science.
But Palin couldn't manage it. Her 45-minute speech rambled all over the place, from her challenges as a mother facing a teenage pregnancy and a Downs-syndrome baby to Todd's Iron Dog racing to the tea partiers to Alaska-Canada ties, wildlife, the Al-Can highway to God helping us take back this nation and stand up for small business, to common sense solutions, to Plato telling us to be nice to others, to getting' our economy workin' again, to the importance of community, to ice hockey and the Olympics--in short, her familiar carpool-mother-with-Tourettes-syndrome.
It was hard to figure out whether she was working up some Christian motivational routine, or just kvetching about her poor treatment by the media, or trying to demonstrate her political cred by hitting the right "facts" about Canada-U.S. relations.
If you tried to parse it, you couldn't. There was not a single memorable line, not a single new political idea, not a single proffered solution beyond the cliché of "needing new solutions." And when the moderator "opened the floor to questions," guess what? Even those questions had to be written down by the tables and submitted in advance, to be selectively chosen by the moderator. Our table mischievously submitted, "Who is your favorite Canadian Prime Minister?" but for some reason it wasn't asked.
But no matter. The audience seemed pleased enough. While a number bolted the moment she finished speaking--not wanting to linger for the Q&A--and another bunch were already gathered in the parking lot, smoking--it seemed that most people had gotten what they'd come for. Again, it was not a political audience. There were no voters or tea partiers here. They wanted to see what they saw on TV-the political equivalent of the tour of Les Miz. She left them feeling peppy and uplifted, humming the last few bars of the hit tune. To that degree, she did not disappoint.
It was political theater--but not political leadership.