Barack Obama seemed to be the biggest celebrity in the world—until Sarah Palin came along. If you've got any doubt, just look at the covers of this week's top celebrity tabloids. Us Weekly has Palin cradling her 5-month-old newborn Trig, with the tawdry headline BABIES, LIES AND SCANDAL. OK Magazine has almost the exact same photo, with the more sympathetic angle: A MOTHER'S PAINFUL CHOICE. And Palin gave her first exclusive interview to People magazine, which reports on "Sarah Palin's Family Drama," including the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter Bristol. The way in which all these magazines are covering Palin, you'd think she was related to Britney Spears, not possibly the next vice president of the United States. But that's exactly the point.
Something in our culture has transformed politicians into celebrities. You could say it started with Barack Obama—who jetted around the world like a rock star, posed with his family for the cover of Us Weekly, gave "Access Hollywood" interviews as if they were CNN and received the stamp of approval from Oprah—but it's more than that. We've always wanted our leaders to have a larger-than-life quality, even if it's meant voting for actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger) or wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) as our governors. Bill Clinton's biggest campaign stop in 1992 was "The Arsenio Hall Show." But now we live in the age of "American Idol," where we elect our entertainers like members of Congress. Is it any wonder that we want our future politicians to entertain us, too?
"This campaign season has generated a lot more interest than previous presidential campaigns," Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly, told me last May. "I just get the sense from the audience that they care." Min attributed part of the interest to the fact that this year's election featured the first woman and black man running for president who could seriously win the election. In essence, it made the journey to the White House more accessible to the rest of the country. Hillary's complicated marriage and Obama's charisma added to their appeal, and magazine editors privately confide that having Obama on your cover has been a good way to move the merchandise. "These two candidates have shown that passions can cross over," Min said. "Having an interest in entertainment and celebrity is not exclusive. A lot of people used to think if you're interested in what Sarah Jessica Parker is wearing you can't care about politics."
So now a lot of those same people interested in Sarah Jessica Parker are now talking about Sarah Palin. It's a little weird that Palin must coexist in the same world as Sanjaya and Kelly Clarkson. But it's also a sign of progress: in a way, we want our celebrities to reflect better (and worse) versions of us, and until now, the White Male White House hasn't done that. It also requires a fine tightrope walk. Obama's camp seemed to revel in his celebrity status, until John McCain's campaign brilliantly turned his celebrity into a negative, comparing him to Paris Hilton. This then prompted Obama—who has probably posed for as many magazine covers as Zac Efron and Lindsay Lohan combined—to push back at his star image. Last week in Denver, he even singled out his humble upbringing (the son of a single mom in Hawaii) to make the point of how uncelebrity he is, though in fact celebrities usually come from equally humble (hello, Britney!) beginnings.
Palin hasn't just dominated the latest news cycle—she hijacked it. She even topped the news on the gossip blog Perez Hilton, who now seems to love writing about the election as much as the Spears sisters. ("Ideally, I would love to use the Web site as an opportunity for the candidates to talk to my readers," he told me after attending the White House Correspondent's Dinner last spring. "It would be cool if any of them wanted to do something with me.") For a few days this week, it looked like Palin's tabloid status could possibly eclipse her career. But then she delivered her speech last night at the Republican National Convention, taking the heat off the celebrity presses. In fact, she came off as charismatic, intelligent, tempered, almost like an Alaskan Julia Roberts. In fact, it was a performance worthy of an Oscar—or at least a Golden Globe.