Palin and Frontier Mythology

Frank Rich, writing in his New York Times column a couple of weeks ago, observed about Sarah Palin’s Alaska (the new “reality” show airing on The Learning Channel) how effectively Palin evokes the mythology of the frontier, noting that it’s her deliberate evocation of the image of the frontiers(wo)man that makes this supposedly completely unpolitical series so political:

“It is in fact completely political — an eight-week infomercial that, miraculously enough, is paying the personality it promotes (a reported $250,000 a week) rather than charging her. The show’s sole political mission is to maintain the fervor and loyalty of the G.O.P. base, not to win over Palin’s detractors.”

As Rich continues, “The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness — an extravagant high-def remake of Bush’s photo ops clearing brush at his “ranch” in Crawford, which in turn were an homage to Ronald Reagan’s old horseback photo ops in his lush cowpoke digs in Santa Barbara.” [“Could She Reach the Top? You Betcha,”  November 20, 2010]

The use of frontier mythology goes back much further than Reagan, and Palin does seem particularly adept at exploiting frontier imagery. Her model seems to be Theodore Roosevelt as much as Reagan. At least, I can’t think of another more recent politician than Roosevelt who so purposely drew on the image of the frontier hunter as Palin does. In a post on another blog back during the last presidential election, I compared photographs of Palin to drawings from Roosevelt’s autobiographies.

The image of politician as successful hunter has a long history in American politics. For example, note this drawing of Theodore Roosevelt, from the frontispiece of his 1885 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Roosevelt had just finished 3 terms in the New York State Legislature and was preparing to run for mayor of New York City (a race he lost, although he would eventually become Governor of New York, and eventually Vice President and then President of the US).

Roosevelt’s book about his western adventures was all part of his reinvention of his image, using the imagery of the frontiersman to add some pioneer spirit to his actual background–member of a wealthy New York family. Other drawings in the book depict the various animals he shot during his hunting trips in the Dakotas.

In Roosevelt’s book, this drawing was titled “Head of Bull Elk,” and had a caption that read, “Shot Sept. 12, 1884.”

The photographs of Palin demonstrating her hunting skills (which were disseminated by the Alaska Office of the Governor) belong to this well-established branch of American political imagery, one that has perhaps developed its own set of conventions and symbolic meanings. There’s no need for Sarah Palin to explicitly evoke politics—the image itself is implicitly a political statement.

In the most recent episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, called “She’s A Great Shot,” she continues to develop this image of herself as hunter / politician.

Is that a pink rifle sewn into her baseball cap?


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