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."

Between this kind of straight-up, self-gratifying eroticism, and the most tedious of debates over hairstyles, glasses, and scrunchies, Sarah Palin never stood a chance. Her executive experience easily trumped any relevant experience Obama had going into the election, but it was well buried under a constant barrage of syndicated discourse over Palin’s good looks.

There are other attractive women in politics, but Palin was a beauty queen. Also, she smiled a lot -- maybe too much. The faltering economy and the war in Iraq dragged America into a collective depression. So mainstream media fed this depression by doling out to a hungry audience the idea that Palin is clueless. After all, she looks so damn good and she’s smiling all the time. What’s to be happy about, right?

CNBC’s Donny Deutsch suggested, "She's sexy. Men want a sexy woman.”

Apparently that desire ends at the door of the White House -- if you’re hoping to be above the desk, anyway. How could we properly assess the leadership qualities of Palin when the media is constantly referring to her in ways like "the hottest governor in all 50 states" and "my total girl crush"? And running photo illustrations of the governor as a dominatrix?

The absence of the feminist voice in her defense is disappointing. Whether or not we women agree with her politics, we should all agree that rather than examining Palin as a political candidate, mainstream media morphed into a gaggle of horny frat boys and failed the American people in the 2008 election.

Former supermodel Linda Evangelista once said, “It was God who made me so beautiful. If I weren't, then I'd be a teacher.”

As repulsive as her comment seemed at the time, perhaps Evangelista was on to something. After all, when I put the words beautiful and teacher together, my mind immediately conjures up Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." I’m not suggesting there aren’t any good teachers out there who also happen to be attractive. But I would bet that when he or she is standing up there in front of the chalk board, student attention is divided.

The American public allowed the news media to divide their attention to Palin during the 2008 race by creating and focusing again and again on a melody we might call "Hot for VP." As we sit back and speculate over Palin’s next career move, it is my hope that we will also examine the discourse throughout the 2008 election and demand far better from the news media in 2012.