Rick Holmes: Sarah Palin - politician or celebrity?

Rick Holmes

The photo on the cover of Newsweek -- and the controversy surrounding it -- are Sarah Palin in a nutshell.

There she is in her kitchen, a view of a lake and the Alaskan wilderness behind her, hair and makeup perfect, decked out in a running outfit designed to show off those long, healthy legs, an American flag casually draped over a nearby chair.

This is how she wants to be seen: Outdoorsy, a woman who is not afraid to be sexy, one who is strong enough to be at home in the kitchen, one who stands with the flag. Sticklers for flag etiquette may object to Old Glory thrown like a dish towel over a kitchen stool, but Palin apparently didn't. Palin is a lifelong athlete and runner, which is why she agreed to do an interview and photo spread for Runner's World last spring.

Newsweek's decision to put the photo on its cover is typical, too. Palin sells, as evidenced by her book's surge to the top of the best-seller lists. Sexy pictures and controversy sell as well. The two columns on Palin inside are mostly critical, which is also typical.

So is Palin's reaction. The photo is sexist, she said, more evidence of the media conspiracy against her.

But this wasn't a candid shot taken by a paparazzi with a telephoto lens. She posed for the photo and now she blames a magazine for using it. In the same way, Palin puts her family at the center of her story, the supporting cast of her campaign, then complains when they pop up in news articles she doesn't like.

There's another way the Runner's World photo is typical of this most untypical politician. Given the reservations most voters had about her qualifications for the vice presidency in 2008, no conventional political adviser would have suggested what she had to do to make herself viable in 2012 was to show more leg.

A conventional politician with any ambitions for the White House would be actively filling gaps in her resume. Aware that she was seen as a policy lightweight, she'd be developing some heft. She'd be attending conferences on economic policy, visiting foreign leaders, writing oped columns on energy policy.

Instead, Palin posed for Runner's World.

A conventional politician serving her first term as governor would build up a record of substantive accomplishment. She'd tend her national image by heading the National Republican Governors Association or some similar group, and maybe sign on with a conservative think tank to keep her name out there.

Instead, Palin quit her job as governor, without giving a good reason, taking another position of responsibility or identifying a higher calling beyond writing a book.

A conventional politician would write a book on a serious topic, establishing her policy credentials. Or she'd write a memoir that celebrates her all-American roots, but one that also presents a vision for the future, a book that says who she is, what she stands for, and where she'd like to lead America.

Instead, Palin wrote a book that looks backward. While it includes well-received chapters on her youth and a brief look at her policy prescriptions, "Going Rogue" is heavy with score-settling. She escalates her battles with the media and with those in the McCain campaign who put her in the national spotlight. Her book reminds Republicans of a campaign they'd rather forget. Instead of winning over the unconvinced, Palin's book and the tour that accompanies it seem designed to reinforce her niche.

All of which is to say not that Sarah Palin is good or bad, or that she should be president or shouldn't. My point is that she is a most unconventional politician, and if she's on her way to the White House, she is taking a most unusual route.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Washington is full of people incapable of leaving political calculations out of their life decisions. John Kerry set his sights on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in prep school, when a friend brought him along on a sailboat ride with John F. Kennedy.

Years ago, I asked a congressman if he had ever smoked pot in college. No, he said, because I knew someday a reporter like you would ask me that question. I found that vaguely creepy.

Sarah Palin is something else. She's not someone who has harbored lifelong dreams of success in politics, or whose life shows a dedication to public service. In college, she aspired to a career as a TV sportscaster, not a lawyer or politician. She chose beauty pageants over the debate club. She may be hailed as a leader of a conservative movement now, but unlike, say, Jesse Jackson or Barack Obama, there's no activism on her resume.

That lack of political preparation showed on the campaign trail last year, along with a lack of discipline. For all her complaints about the "liberal media," some of the most searing criticism of her has come from conservatives. Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, last summer tied Palin's shortcomings to her membership in the "self-esteem generation," who were raised believing "they are perfect in every way."

Take me as I am, says Palin. She feels no need to burnish her credentials, govern Alaska or win over skeptical independent voters.

When I first saw the Runner's World photo spread, I wondered if Palin really wants to be president. Down deep, she might find a career as a model more intriguing, or maybe she sees herself as a talk show host, or starring in her own reality TV series.

In some ways, Palin is more a product of America's celebrity culture than its political culture. Like her nemesis, Levi Johnston -- the father of her grandson who has gone from the stage at the GOP convention to the pages of Playgirl magazine -- she has a hard time resisting the urge to strike a pose for a camera or put her family's private business before the public.

Palin is self-invented, which is a fine American trait. Think Ben Franklin, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dylan. She's an American original, writing her own script. Whether or not she ever gets close to the White House, I expect she'll find a role that will keep her in the national spotlight for many years to come.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at