Bristol Palin and her mom, Sarah Palin, have used their reality TV shows – 'Dancing With the Stars' and 'Sarah Palin's Alaska' – to underscore a secret to their appeal: the disarming smile.
Bristol Palin and and her mother, Sarah Palin, both have weaknesses as candidates. On "Dancing With the Stars," Bristol has repeatedly received the lowest scores from the judges. In public-opinion polls, about two-thirds of Americans say Sarah is unqualified to be president.
Yet here they are, Bristol and her warm, slightly baffled grin now in the final of "DWTS" – a feat so incomprehensible to some that they see foul play at work. And Sarah is drawing record audiences to "Sarah Palin's Alaska" to watch her shoot skeet with a smile, even as she sends tremors through the blogosphere by simply asserting that she could beat President Obama in 2012.
But despite such tough talk and mama-grizzly analogies, it's in many ways the duo's self-effacing affects that, on the one hand, have become a balm for many dissatisfied Americans who are seeking a rebirth of American optimism. But on the other hand, there are those who see the family's upbeat demeanor as the ascendancy of "arrogant, self-righteous, [and] self-aggrandizing cluelessness," in the words of liberal blogger Michael Stickings.
"The reason Palin has become such a [lightning] rod, a kingmaker and a punching bag, a celebrity and a power player, is simple. It's because she's so gosh darn happy," writes columnist S.E. Cupp in the New York Daily News.
The Palins' demeanor and success against all odds is driving some detractors to the extreme. After Tuesday's "Dancing With the Stars," an apparently mentally disturbed Wisconsin man shot his TV before entering a standoff with police at his home that eventually ended peacefully. He said he was upset by what he called Bristol's "political" victory.
Yet more-reasoned critics are also picking up on the Palins' merger of pop culture and politics that the family seems to almost effortlessly manage.
"No doubt, Sarah Palin ... is profoundly ignorant in matters of foreign policy and macroeconomics," writes Sheldon Filger in The Huffington Post. "However, as the election of George W. Bush to the presidency demonstrated, the intellectual capacity of the commander-in-chief is not a priority among the majority of the American electorate.... Palin has demonstrated that she is highly accomplished in the attributes that tend to attract interest and support among the electorate."
Ms. Palin, who is in her mid-40s, has had her share of personal challenges, including the birth of a child diagnosed with Down syndrome and a daughter, Bristol, having a baby as a teenager and out of wedlock. According to Ms. Cupp, the columnist, it's exactly that idea of the Palins sharing common American struggles and going about business with a smile that helps to electrify conservative audiences while perplexing many other Americans who sense, as a 2008 headline read, that "Sarah Palin's smile hides claws."
"Near as I could tell, Palin has caused so much hubbub because she's a more or less average person," writes commenter DavidN on the Pajamas Media website. "Women who run for political office don't typically have 5 children ... [or] a goofy accent that makes them sound unsophisticated.... My counter is that the smarter people are the ones who got us into the mess we're currently in; maybe it's time to try someone who's not quite so 'smart,' but who's perhaps a bit more pragmatic, and world-wise."
At the same time, says Charles Bierbauer, a political expert at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, the Palins have been experts at navigating media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and a glut of cable-TV options to mold an "everyfamily" image.
"Today, you can almost create what you want [in the media]," he says. "There's room for everybody out there more or less who's got an idea, a product to sell, and a winning smile."