Page column: Palin’s winning ways

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 14, 2009

If you know what Washington’s Gridiron Club is all about, the idea of Sarah Palin addressing the group might sound pretty unlikely ó about as unlikely as, say, the National Organization for Women naming Tiger Woods their man of the year.
That’s because the Gridiron Club is made up of journalists who cover Washington. Like other leading right-wingers, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate speaks of Washington and the media in the way doctors speak of swine flu.
And yet, odd juxtapositions happen. Bob Dylan has released a Christmas album. Bill Cosby has released an album of “socially conscious hip-hop.” And Sarah Palin has addressed the Gridiron Club as an honored guest ó and she got laughs!
That’s important because Washington journalists founded the Gridiron Club in America’s most serious town back in the 19th century for less-than-serious purposes: Two dinners, one in spring and one in summer, during which journalists make fun of the people they cover.
Suffice it to say the humor of this club, founded with the Victorian-era slogan, “The Gridiron singes but does not burn,” belongs to a less raucously polarized era than this age of Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and YouTube. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile achievement these days simply to bring members of opposing parties together peaceably under the same roof, even if it takes the lure of being able to ridicule the media to the faces of those of us who work in them.
Palin not only interrupted her book tour, dubbed “Palinpalooza” by colorful headline writers, to speak to a roomful of those darned media, all gussied up in gowns and tuxedos but she black tie, but she held her own against this year’s Democratic speaker, Washington liberal master of pithy one-liners, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
If Palin won the evening ó and even my own Hyde Park liberal wife believes she did ó it is largely because everyone expected Frank to be funny, which he was. Palin defied expectations. I am so accustomed to her attack-dog role in last year’s presidential campaign and the angry spirits of many of her supporters in the Tea Party wing of her party, that I was surprised to see how cheerfully and gracefully she can poke fun at herself without actually being Tina Fey in disguise.
A sampling:
“It is good to be here and in front of this audience of leading journalists and intellectuals. Or, as I call it, a death panel.”
“To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, this has to be the most extraordinary collection of people who have gathered to viciously attack me since the last corporate gathering at CBS.”
“I’ve been touring this great, great land of ours over the last few weeks. I have to say, the view is much better from inside the bus, than under it!”
I don’t know who writes her material now that she no longer has a governor’s office, Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign or many official friends in Washington’s party establishment to turn to for gags. But her timing was impeccable. She has a former sports announcer’s ó and former Miss Alaska finalist’s ó way of projecting her sincerity, a quality that the late George Burns famously called the secret to success: “Fake that and you’ve got it made.”
Yet, as much as her politics are not mine, after chatting with her and her husband, good-natured former “First Dude” Todd Palin, I came away with a new fondness and respect for both of them. If they were faking their enjoyment at being there, they certainly sounded mighty sincere about it.
They were warm and friendly in the infectious way that helped Ronald Reagan rise from B-movie actor to California governor and president. The fact that Ms. Palin’s next book-signing date was in Iowa only enhanced talk of her possibly taking the presidential plunge. More bizarre things have happened, like Reagan’s rise.
Although I still think Palin will use her new fame and political pull to influence politics from some television talk show studio somewhere, her potential in politics awaits one something she has not shown us: A big speech.
Reagan polished his skills, ideas and delivery as a campaigner for Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, and as a broadcast commentator before he ran for office. Then-Sen. Barack Obama memorably leaped to the national stage with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Palin has yet to deliver a similarly original vision on such a grand scale. But she’s young. At this moment, she excites more voters than other known Republican hopefuls do, even if polls show quite a few more voters who love her than say they will vote for her.
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Clarence Page at cpage(at), or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)