Pretty in Politics: Sarah Palin vs. the Laws of Power

Still firmly in place where the glass ceiling once hovered over Washington, D.C., is one final barrier for women in politics: the mirror ceiling.

Speaking from experience -- not ego -- beauty is an indisputable source of power. I have been offered cars, exotic vacations, jobs, and countless other gifts, and I’m not afraid to concede the role my looks played in these generous offerings.

But in politics, beauty is a show-stopper at a certain level.

In his bestselling book, The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene cautions against appearing too perfect, suggesting, “Only the gods and the dead can seem perfect with impunity.”

The human preoccupation with physical beauty, and the resulting diversion from the real issues, was never so prevalent in the national conversation as it was in the 2008 presidential election. America jumped off the bridge with mainstream media to obsess over Sarah Palin -- “the beautiful conservative Republican governor of Alaska,” observed one magazine.

Not since the days of John F. Kennedy’s campaign has a candidate’s physical appeal played such a central role in the race for president. Even then, however, mainstream media did manage to avoid the easy, salacious diversion from the issues -- primarily Cuba, the space program, and the economy. There were, in news coverage, occasional and brief allusions to his charm and good looks, and those of his wife Jacqueline. But it was never the central focus of coverage.

Flash forward to the 2008 race for the White House. Opinion coverage in mainstream media -- as I hesitate to call it news coverage -- was sounding more and more like conversations you’d hear at a frat party.

In September 2008, just two months before the election, Time.com ran a story headlined “Searching for Sarah Palin's 'Hot Photos.'”

Seven days later, Slate columnist David Plotz announced: “I dream about Sarah Palin. Do You?” He invited his readers to share their fantasies about the vice presidential nominee, even going so far as to set up a dedicated email account to which horny political wonks could send their tawdry tales. His verbal fawning went on and on: “She's a lioness. ... Women want to be her. Men want to mate with her."