Re: Wardrobegate: The Sarah Palin Chronicles Continue

Hard on the heels of the release of Sarah Palin’s new book, “Going Rogue“, comes this interview with Lisa Kline, the New York stylist who bought a small fortune’s worth of clothes that later became a huge scandal during the 2008 presidential campaign. This article is a pared down version of the full interview Lisa gave to authors Shushannah Walse and Scott Conroy (“Sarah from Alaska: The Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar“).

A number of people who commented on the article wondered why something as “frivolous” as Palin’s vice-presidential wardrobe is worthy of news coverage. That question never arises for us, faithful readers. We already know that clothes are never simply just items made of cloth. They are symbolic of larger issues. In this case, “Wardrobegate” points up problems within the 2008 McCain-Palin Presidential campaign and with Mrs. Palin herself. The continuing news coverage of this particular misstep is both reflective of the public’s interest in reading about and dissecting the historic 2008 campaign and their interest in Sarah Palin’s national political ambitions.

So what specific problems is Wardrobegate symbolic of? Without getting into a detailed political analysis, let’s start with the McCain campaign as a whole and then move down to the candidate.

  • Stylist Kline was hired at the last minute and tasked with putting together a posh wardrobe–first for Sarah and then for the entire Palin family–on a holiday weekend. The get-the-clothes-now-and-expense-be-damned approach reflects the fact that McCain put off selecting his running mate until the 11th hour. While McCain and his advisers had plenty of reasons for dithering, the fact is that announcing Sarah Palin as the vice presidential pick even a month ahead of time would have saved them considerable money and embarassment later on.
  • The chain of authority and accountability was non-existent. No one took responsibility for ordering the new wardrobe or for riding herd on the budget as expenditures ballooned. This bit of mismanagement has to be laid at the feet of John McCain’s leadership style. McCain, by all accounts, preferred a non-hierarchial, improvisational structure for his organization which served him well in the past when he was running a small, underdog, insurgent campaign, but which caused major problems for the larger, more traditional campaign he was running in 2008.
  • No one seemed at all concerned about saving the campaign money. Let me say that again. No one seemed at all concerned about saving the campaign money. This state of affairs is all the more unbelieveable considering how strapped for cash the McCain organization was. Yet again and again staffers thought nothing about picking up clothing items in “high end shops”. Could nobody pick anything up from Target or Fred Meyers?
  • No one seemed at all concerned about how the donors’ money was being spent. If Mrs. Palin had bought a few high end suits and charged it to her own credit card, the kerfluffle might not even have made headlines. Charging the cost to the Republican National Committee made it everybody’s business. Earlier this year, the Federal Election Committee ruled that the McCain campaign did nothing illegal in charging expensive outfits to the RNC. While the campaign’s actions may not be illegal, it defies all common sense to suggest that designer duds for the personal use of the candidate are somehow reasonable expenditures that donors should pay for. As I said in an earlier post, if the Republicans can’t properly manage the money of their own contributors, how can they properly manage the public’s money?
  • No one seemed at all concerned that dressing Sarah Palin in designer clothes would undermine her “Everywoman” image. Sarah Palin was being billed by the GOP as an average, working class hockey mom. It was absolutely critical that her clothes back that up. No one seemed to have understood the hypocrisy inherent in accusing one’s opponents of elitism–as Palin did during and after the campaign–while at the same time wearing expensive suits purchased from dens of elitism like Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
  • Once the scandal broke, the campaign did not acknowledge their mistake and respond appropriately. The way the campaign handled what became a damaging story about their VP nominee was lame to say the least and again showed the campaign’s inability to stick to a message or deal effectively with problems.

So what does Wardrobegate say about Sarah Palin? As governor, Sarah had the reputation of being something of a fashion plate. Admittedly, in a state as devotedly casual as Alaska, that meant wearing red wedgies to the office instead of dress shoes or sneakers. Even so, her “fashion plate” rep wasn’t considered a liability. It was, after all, her own money and Sarah’s fondness for clothes most Alaskans couldn’t get at their local department store was just another charming idiosyncrasy in a reform-minded woman who was there to shake up the state capital.

The Palin family is often portrayed by Sarah’s supporters as poor. That is simply not the case. While Todd and Sarah started off as working class, by the time Sarah was elected governor, the Palins had managed to achieve a comfortable, upper middle class lifestyle. They had a large, beautiful lakeside house, a private plane (Piper class), and a fleet of snowmachines including a high end racer for Iron Dog champion, Todd.  Income-wise, between the two of them, the family roughly cleared about $150,000-200,000 per year. In other words, the Palins could have afforded new clothes for their ascent onto the national stage although they could not have financed the boutique items the McCain campaign decided were necessary.

Most Alaskans can’t and don’t live like the Palins. While it’s true that many Alaskans shop second-hand, most don’t frequent upscale thrift shops like Second Run (formerly Out of the Closet) in Anchorage, Alaska where Governor Palin liked to shop. And even if they did, few would plunk down $300 for a designer suit jacket. There are very few places to wear uptown attire even in urban Alaska and people are more likely to spend $300 for a good parka. Carhartt, not Valentino, is the label Alaskans look for.

Did Sarah Palin request that the McCain campaign buy her and her family designer clothes? No. Did she express concern over the cost of some of the items? Yes. Did she put a stop to the practice of purchasing high end items with donor funds? No, she didn’t. And therein lies the crux of the problem. If you aren’t willing to take responsibility for something as important as your public image and as personal as the clothes on your back, how are you going to take responsibility for the country?

Why was an otherwise savvy politician willing to place her political future in the hands of McCain operatives? And why wasn’t she better able to handle the problems caused by the dysfunctional campaign? The answers to both those questions have to do with Sarah Palin’s management style and personality.

As governor, Palin had a dislike for the nitty-gritty details of governance. A laissez-faire manager, she was inclined to leave the day-to-day decisions to her staff  with mixed results–sometimes good and sometimes with serious political consequences (e.g. Troopergate).  For a charismatic woman, Palin also had considerable difficulty throughout her career getting along with the people she worked with (staff, legislators, council members, constituents, etc.). Her ascent to a position of power was frequently followed by sturm-and-drang falling outs with former friends, supporters, and allies–most of them Republicans and conservatives.

All of these qualities came to a head during her 2008 vice-presidential run. Yes, the McCain campaign made many serious mistakes, but Mrs. Palin should have paid more attention to where the clothes were coming from and the money was going to. And once the problem was discovered, Mrs. Palin should have worked with the McCain camp to deal with the scandal in a constructive way. Unfortunately, by that point in the campaign, the McCain and Palin camps had become so alienated from each other that Wardrobegate simply became another bitter point of contention.

After all this folderol, what was the final disposition of that pricey wardrobe? At the end of the campaign, Sarah and family returned the clothes to the RNC. The items that were unworn were supposed to be returned to the retail outlets that they were purchased from. The altered items could not be returned and were supposed to be donated to charity. As of May 2009, the Washington Post reported that the RNC, while claiming that the items were no longer “sitting in plastic bags around RNC headquarters”, would not (or possible could not) account for where the clothes had been donated or how many of the items had been given to charity.

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