There goes the neighborhood. We do not know if that was Sarah Palin’s initial response to the news that a journalist writing a book about her had rented the house next to hers in Wasilla, Alaska. But who could blame her if it was?
As it is, the response Palin did share on Facebook seems tellingly uneven, as if Joe McGinniss’ decision to move in next door had knocked her off her game. One moment, she’s chirping with trademark insouciance about how she might bake him a blueberry pie to welcome him to the neighborhood. The next, she is talking about raising the fence between her house and his.
In the same Facebook posting, Palin also suggested, with smarmy innuendo, that from his new home, the author could see into her daughter’s bedroom. Palin did not explain why he would wish to do so.
McGinniss’ move has stirred controversy beyond Wasilla. A posting on Slate.com strongly defended his “immersion” journalism. At the other end of the opinion spectrum, the author has received death threats from angry Palin fans. Among McGinniss’ more hinged critics, the word “creepy” gets used a lot. Even in defending him, the piece on Slate.com likened him to a stalker.
For his part, McGinniss told NBC’s “Today” show that “creepy is as creepy does” – whatever that means – and portrayed his decision to rent the house next door as coincidental. He needed to live in Wasilla for the summer while doing his research, it was a great house at a great price, and it just happened to be next door to the woman he is writing about.
If ever there is a Museum of Disingenuous Explanations, that one will deserve its own wing. And here, let us stipulate three things:
One, McGinniss is pulling an obvious stunt that ultimately benefits both parties: it helps him sell books, it helps her sell herself as a victim of the “lamestream” media.
Two, McGinniss is perfectly within his rights to rent this house – or any other he desires.
Three, Palin is, of her own doing, a public figure and as such, must accept intense, even intrusive, media scrutiny.
But even stipulating all that, it’s hard to be sanguine about the uncomfortable nearness McGinniss has foisted upon his subject. Not that you can’t understand why he’d want to write about her. Palin is, second only to the president himself, the most compelling figure in American politics – and the most polarizing. For some, she is the folksy, straight-talkin’ avatar of conservative principles, while for others, she is the leader of an intellectually incoherent movement that has no idea where it’s going but seems in a hurry to get there.
Under neither interpretation, however, does she forfeit her humanity or her right to expect that she will be treated with basic human decency. And stalking another person – sorry, but when even your friends call you a stalker, you’re a stalker – violates that expectation. This is not immersion or even intrusion. This is invasion.
Unfortunately, invasion has become the media’s default means of covering the rich and famous. Ask Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise. They all enjoy the mixed blessing of being celebrities in an era where lines of propriety have been all but erased and too close is never close enough – an era where you are never out of camera range and folks seem to think themselves entitled to your deepest feelings, failings, secrets and fears, as if public people had no right to private lives. Indeed, if I were Pitt, Bullock or Cruise, I’d make offers on the houses next to mine just in case McGinniss has given somebody ideas.
We have, many of us, chosen to forget this, but the mere fact of being well known does not make an individual abstract or theoretical, nor does it absolve us of the obligation to treat them as we’d wish to be treated. People have the right to live peaceably and privately within their own walls.
Even Sarah Palin.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.