Sarah Palin Gets the Last Laugh on Former Running-Mate John McCain

Sarah Palin in seen pumping her fist in the air, with John McCain smiling in the background
Pimkie / Flickr

When Sarah Palin stumped for John McCain’s senatorial reelection campaign in Arizona on March 26, headlines such as CNN’s “Reunited and it Feels so Good” and NPR’s “Together Again” invoked ballads of romantic reconciliation, as if the two were a sparring couple back in one another’s arms rather than losers of the 2008 presidential election.

As creepy as a romance between the two might be to contemplate, Palin behaved more like a reluctant prodigal daughter — and an unrepentant one at that. She wisecracked at McCain’s expense, playing up their age difference, greater sex appeal and, well, potency.

When she campaigned as McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin’s relative youth and her subordinate femininity (as a woman looking up to an older man) were widely perceived as adding luster to his manly “mavericky” image; however, once she “went rogue” on the campaign trail and refused to follow the script, Palin became a liability.

Now that she’s a conservative “darling” and media celebrity, the power balance has tipped in her favor. Reports of her Arizona visit cast it as a rescue mission and emphasized her star power. No longer at the bottom of McCain’s ticket, she’s at the top of her game, and she wore the tough-gal leather biker jacket to prove it.

At the Arizona rally, Sarah Palin trotted out the maverick label and praised McCain for his anti-Obama outsiderness. But her speech had a subversive undercurrent, working the seam of age and gender at McCain’s expense. For example, to illustrate how McCain’s “man of the people” stance hasn’t won him friends in Washington, she drew on her own expertise in beauty pageants, chuckling that “He could win the talent and debate portion of any pageant, but no one’s going to dub him Miss Congeniality.” Picturing McCain in a beauty contest is inherently incongruous (would he tap dance for talent?), and then to invoke him as Miss Congeniality? Such a title feminizes him and gives Palin a home-field advantage: She was, after all, Miss Wasilla—and Miss Congeniality.

She also recycled for laughs an infamous line from the speech she made when she resigned as Alaska’s governor: “Only dead fish go with the flow.” Given that the phrase was originally part of her convoluted way of claiming she wasn’t really quitting—which few took seriously—it’s not clear what she was getting at in reference to McCain. I wondered if Palin was suggesting he might follow her lead and (wink, wink) not quit (i.e., quit), too.

Sarah Palin’s most damning joke came at the moment in her speech when she was ostensibly reeling in ultra-conservative tea-party voters for McCain. After declaring, “We are all part of that tea party movement,” Palin went rogue once again. She referenced the Boston Tea Party and fired off a rehearsed one-liner: “Some may claim that John was there at that first Tea Party.” Everyone howled at this mean-spirited joke about his age. McCain’s laughter was obviously forced; he had to laugh, but he didn’t have to like it.

Right after she landed this punch, Palin turned to McCain with a half-hearted “I’m kidding.”  But as her memoir, Going Rogue, makes clear, Palin had hard feelings after the conclusion of the 2008 election. One thing she didn’t like was being told she couldn’t give a concession speech, something she blames McCain himself for having prevented.

If her recent appearance on the campaign trail with McCain was “payback,” as some said, then it cut both ways. She clearly does as she pleases these days, and she doesn’t have to play dutiful daughter—or partner—to the former presidential candidate any more.

When Sarah Palin got her audience at McCain’s rally to laugh at the candidate, he lost face, and instead of magnifying his strength she made him look needy, old and impotent. Maybe he should have read her memoir more closely.

In an e-mail Palin includes at the end of the book, a devoted supporter reminds Palin’s detractors of “what happens when you continually jab and pester a barracuda. Without warning, it will spin around and tear your face off. Shoulda known better.”


Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.