October 2, 2008

The Tattlesnake – I Knew Sarah Palin Edition

…Or, At Least, Someone Like Her

Centuries ago, before personal computers, Blackberries, cell phones and The Google, Your Decrepit Tattler worked for a company that published a glossy magazine in a mid-sized, Midwestern US city. The glossy was eponymously named after the city, and the company also owned the local civic-booster travel guide and an FM radio station.

One day the word went out – the company had hired that year’s winner of the state beauty pageant to flack for the magazine, and proudly announced that the owner/publisher was confident she would go on to become Miss America, thereby enhancing the magazine’s ‘national prestige and image.’ All of us Worker Bees were ordered to come up with ways to promote the wonderfulness of Wendy Jo Stepford – her real name has been lost in the mists of age, but that’s a serviceable substitute – making sure we ‘excited’ local and state media coverage of her and, of course, the magazine for which she stood.

Our Advertising Director Ron, the dog, eagerly took it upon himself to be her personal escort and tutor, and arranged photo-ops around town to display her at various events – inaugurating the Oktoberfest celebration, cutting the ribbon at a car dealership opening, saluting the interstate trucking industry, dining at a new trendy restaurant – where she could smile with incredibly large teeth, open her eyes unnaturally wide, and proclaim forgettable hooey with the breathy guileless sincerity of a pretty 20-year-old in a miniskirt.

At first, the plans of the owner/publisher went smoothly – wherever she went, Wendy Jo attracted crowds of young women asking her about her choice in cosmetics and wardrobe, and leering old lechers who lusted to be her Sugar Daddy, and the media couldn’t get enough of her blandly sweet persona and trite, platitude-laden lexicon. Plus, she looked good in a two-piece bathing suit – somewhat incongruous for a German beer festival where she was posed with ruddy men in lederhosen, but it put her picture on the front page of the city’s highest-circulation newspaper.

The first crack in Wendy Jo’s edifice occurred during that suds-soaked Teutonic rave-up when she was asked about the history of Oktoberfest – they might as well have asked her to define Quantum Mechanics. She paused for a long uneasy moment, eyes practically bugging out of her head in naive intensity while her mouth froze in a large-mouthed professional beauty contestant grin; then came the groaner, delivered brightly: “Uh, those Nazis in Germany had a lot of bad stuff about them, but I think we can all agree that Oktoberfest was a pretty darn good idea!” Oh, you betcha! Gemütlichkeit!

Ron returned to the office glum that day – his careful tutelage of Wendy Jo apparently a waste of time. His attitude changed, though, when the papers came out that afternoon with no mention of the ‘Nazi’ remark – the magazine had dodged a bullet, although the throng at the festival had momentarily peered at their beer steins in bleary-eyed bafflement. “What did she say? Nazis?” But she was young and attractive, so much is forgiven. Besides, they were all drunk and forgot it.

The owner/publisher was not as sanguine over her goofy statement as Ron: He called a staff meeting to insure this kind of gaffe would never happen again. He assigned one team to go to her hometown upstate and do a puffy ‘backgrounder’ on her life for the magazine; he assigned others, including yours truly, to prep her with likely questions from the press and feed her safe answers that didn’t involve the Third Reich.

Ron and a bunch of us wretches assembled in the editorial office main room – the Pit, as it was called – and Wendy Jo stood in the center as we went down a list of upcoming events and tried to anticipate all the questions the media might throw at her. I’ll say this for Wendy Jo: she had a good memory and could deliver her lines convincingly. But first, she needed to know the lines.

On the opening of a new Chevrolet dealership: “Chevrolet certainly builds some great American cars, even though it’s got that darn Frenchy name! They should have something more American-sounding like Ford does.” No, Wendy, no! Instead say, “General Motors builds great American cars and trucks and Chevrolet is its leading seller! It’s still true today: See the USA in a Chevrolet!”

On a salute to the interstate trucking industry: “Ya know, without trucks we probably wouldn’t be here. I know I wouldn’t be here because we had to rent a truck to move into my new apartment so, if not for trucks, I’d still be at home with my parents ’cause I couldn’t move all my stuff in my little VW Beetle, even with all my friends helping and piling stuff up on the roof! It would really be a major bummer!” Arrggghh, come on, Wendy! Try, “Interstate trucking is the lifeline though which our food, material goods and medicine are delivered to our stores and then sold to the customer. Interstate trucking is the highway to America’s future progress and our economic strength as a nation.”

On dining at a new restaurant: “Except for tomatoes and peppers and radishes, I’ve never seen red stuff in a salad before. They said it was cabbage, but cabbage is green. What was that red stuff — was that really cabbage? And that oily foreign dressing – vinegar something-or-other — what was with that?” Reset. “It’s wonderful to have a new fine dining establishment in our town, and the food is simply delicious.”

And on it went, through the better part of an afternoon and into the evening; ashtrays filled, spent coffee cups cluttering desktops, bits of pulled-out hair littering the floor as we tried to prepare Wendy Jo for every possible question.

Meanwhile, the Away Team that had been sent to her hometown was turning up some not-so-savory information. Wendy Jo’s official bio said she was a rural country girl, raised by a dairy farmer father and a ‘typical’ stay-at-home mom. But in interviews with those who knew her growing up, the A.T. were finding out that, although her father was a dairy farmer when she was born, he had failed at that and became a CPA who had had an office in her hometown for 18 years; he had also been mayor for a couple of terms. Her mother had taught school in town for nearly two decades, and, contrary to her humble story that she had only entered beauty pageants because someone had put her up for one as a high school prank, the evidence showed she had been actively competing in beauty pageants since she was 10. A couple of her high school friends even claimed she had been pregnant at 19, but had gone away to have an abortion so that it wouldn’t conflict with her burning desire to be Miss America.

When confronted with her biographical deceptions by Ron, Wendy Jo admitted it was all true and started sobbing, begging Ron to keep her little white lies to himself – she just HAD to win Miss America! He said he would, but he would have to tell the owner/publisher.

Why did she lie about such innocuous details as her parents’ employment and that she grew up in a split-level ranch house in a small city instead of on the farm? She thought the rural farm scenario sounded more ‘romantic’ and ‘down-to-earth, real American’; she thought the beauty pageant tale made her seem less ‘ambitious and creepy’; the pregnancy and abortion story is obvious, and you can see the tabloid headline: “Miss America Confesses: ‘I Had An Abortion to Get the Crown!’”

I wasn’t privy to the details, but there was a meeting between Ron, the owner/publisher, and Wendy Jo that resulted in her contract being quietly cancelled and she returned that evening to her hometown. The magazine was revamped and all mention of Wendy Jo was dropped from its pages; the same was true for the travel guide and FM radio station – Wendy Jo had officially become a non-person. Any media questions on her sudden disappearance were to be referred to the owner/publisher or the editor-in-chief, and they had some empty boilerplate ready regarding her returning home to work on her Miss America run.

Watching Sarah Palin slog her way through interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric I was reminded of Wendy Jo – the “I have a pretty smile so I can get away with anything” expression, the intense eyes-wide-open professional beauty pageant contestant gaze, the pleasing-nonsense answers, and the biography that doesn’t quite stand up to the light of day – it was all there, albeit on a larger scale.

If McCain loses this election, as it now seems sure he will, the blame will be placed on Palin’s nomination and her future in elective politics will be over; McCain himself may lose his Senate seat in Arizona as the country slowly shifts leftward, away from the contemptuous pandering, fake outrage, cultural warfare and manifold deceptions of the Rovian campaign playbook. If the GOP is lucky, it will return to the Goldwater path of principled conservatism and drive out the corrupt grifters of the Bush/Cheney/Gingrich/DeLay era; if it’s unlucky, it will further wither as the party of Christian fanatics who have turned off the majority of the voting public with their hateful antics and ecumenical lunacy.

Incidentally, Wendy Jo never won the Miss America pageant; she didn’t even come in as a runner-up.

Today, Wendy Jo would be in her 50s – I wonder if she thinks it was all worth it, spending so many years desperately trying to become Miss America only to lose in the end?

I wonder, when it all shakes out, if Sarah Palin will.

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