Once upon a time, "Dancing With the Stars" was about competitive ballroom dancing -- and grace under pressure. But ever since the 2008 Presidential election, ABC and the show's producers can't resist playing with political fire. They started inviting Republican figures like Buzz Aldrin and Tom DeLay to compete. These old guys were clearly non-dancers, and swiftly got sent home.
Not so with cute young non-dancer Bristol Palin. She should have been sent home weeks ago. This week -- incredibly -- Bristol became the first non-dancer to reach the hallowed semi-finals, with a so-so tango and a samba that was pathetic for its display of conservative inhibition. And Kurt Warner's way-better performance got him sent home.
Are the producers aware of the monster they're created? What if Palin wins the mirror-ball? Her Tea Party voting bloc has the power to give her that win over real dancers like Jennifer Grey. After all, these voters are apparently the same people who rammed lots of Republicans into office during the mid-terms. You betcha.
To be fair, I'll say that Palin is trying. But trying isn't good enough.
At some point, her fellow competitors who had some natural dancing talent -- like Kyle Massey -- were connecting with it, and igniting the dance floor. Theoretically, one should do some igniting in order to reach the semi-finals. But Palin has never ignited. Her body language is painfully self-conscious, powered no doubt by a religious conviction that she shouldn't be out there rolling her booty in front of millions of people.
Bristol's voter peeps don't care whether she can do a funky samba or not -- they keep her "safe" every week, while better dancers are sent home.
What's going on here -- politically?
While America was convulsing over the mid-terms, longer-term strategies were being crafted by those in the ultraconservative church movement -- especially Bristol's mother, Sarah Palin.
Palin's organization is likely looking for Presidential results in 2012. And they've quietly launched a number of media gambits that aim to launder Palin's image. They want to "normalize" her -- to erase the perception that she is a "religious extremist." Especially those damaging revelations of 2008, that Palin is owned by the New Apostolic Reformation. The NAR is that powerful international evangelical movement that aims to set up totalitarian bible-based "governments for Jesus" in every country. They already did it in Uganda, where they incited and supported the anti-gay legislation proposed by the Museveni regime. Now they aim to capture government in the U.S.
So the Palin/White House strategy is quietly snaking its way along several different media routes -- and the most blatant one is right in front of America's nose every Monday and Tuesday night on DWTS.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the high-level meetings between the network and the Palin organization, when Bristol's competition was arranged.
Bristol's costumes were evidently an issue -- requested to be modest. I wonder if it was ever discussed how a shy 20-year-old from a bible-based background was going to loosen up for the Latin dancing. It's not just the steps -- it's the spirit of the thing. Cha cha, tango, samba and rumba have to ignite at the sexual level, not just the athletic level. How was this kid going to do that? Did anybody wonder? Did Bristol (who owns her own PR firm) wonder? Or did everybody just figure that she'd get the votes no matter what she did?
Was the daughter just a pawn -- for the network to get ratings, and the politicians to get face-on-camera time that would be good for a Presidential run? Sarah has gotten more guest takes on DWTS than probably any other family member of a contestant in the show's history.
This week, for instance, Sarah got to play "loving supportive mom" visiting the studio where Bristol's partner, Mark Ballas, was trying to get her to tango. Sarah's body language revealed that she was actually uncomfortable in that "artsy secular" atmosphere, and she asked if it was going to be a "lap dance."
And how was the public vote going to work?
On reality shows involving a public vote, it would be a snap to organize tens of thousands of votes for a political favorite. Any good campaign manager could do it. Who can forget the rumors flying around "American Idol", when a quietly organized phone vote by conservative groups may have helped hetero-boy-next-door Chris Allen beat the outrageously gay Adam Lambert. It was never proven that such a thing happened. But "Idol's" policy of allowing unlimited votes from each phone would have made it easy to do this.
DWTS does limit votes to five from each phone. So organizing a dance vote would be more difficult -- it would have to involve a large number of people. But the religious right might be equal to the task. On the other hand, it's possible that Bristol's non-dancing is simply being supported with unorganized personal enthusiasm by large numbers of those same Tea Party voters who prevailed during the mid-terms.
Are the judges in on it? Carrie Ann, Len and Bruno have consistently been civil but also critical. Often they scored Palin at the bottom of the leaderboard. In my opinion, they've been sending the message that she ought to go home. But the voters weren't listening.
Other Palin Strategies
To name a couple more:
No sooner is DWTS ending, than TV viewers will be whammed by "Sarah Palin's Alaska." This new 8-part series will follow Palin and her family on various fun junkets through the Alaskan wilderness. Presumably the producers were careful not to have her shooting any moose. It's scheduled to debut on Discovery's TLC on November 14.
Why Discovery? As the most widely watched cable network in the world, Discovery is thought of as somewhat liberal and scientific. It reaches an audience of over 99 million people that Tea Partiers might dismiss as tree huggers and animal lovers -- though the brand covers science and technology, exploration, and history as well.
I've been watching the trailers. They have Palin burbling things like: "Family comes first -- this is better than being in some dumpy old political office somewhere -- I'd rather be out here being free." But despite the sugar-coating of lush Alaska outdoor photography, there's no doubt that this series is another piece of political puffery that aims to make Palin look non-extremist and harmless -- even a bit liberal-friendly.
Meanwhile, Palin doesn't miss an imaging opportunity with books.
In recent decades, a book is part of any smart pol's strategy. While the book retail market is going eerily soft, Christian books are doing well. Among them was Palin's personal self-puffery -- her autobiographical Going Rogue. It came out in 2009 and still sells -- right now it's #530 on the Amazon ranking.
A more serious political gambit is the newest book -- The Faith and Values of Sarah Palin, by Stephen Mansfield and David A. Holland (FrontLine, Strang Communications Book Group, 2010). This opus came out in September.
How do we know this new book is a crock of ultraconservative Christian disinformation? Because the publisher actually says so. On the "about" page of their website, Strang says, "We are ...a multi-media communications company focused on spreading the name and fame of Jesus throughout the world through the mass media."
Founder Stephen Strang is one of the self-styled "apostles" of the New Apostolic Reformation. He is also a Christian Zionist, serving as director for John Hagee's Christians United for Israel. Strang's book titles often hew to themes that are dear to the NAR -- like "spiritual warfare" -- a core NAR tactic of mass prayer that aims to drive out demons that supposedly infest a neighborhood or city or even a country.
So there you have it. "Dancing With the Stars" has let itself be the tool of a possible Presidential candidate who is associated with a totalitarian religious movement. Surely this is some kind of eerie benchmark in the history of politicians who leverage family members into campaigning.
If Bristol Palin wins the mirror-ball, will the show be viewed as a fraud? In fact, the comments are already piling up out there, from outraged viewers who see the political intent lurking behind Bristol's samba fringes, and say they won't watch DWTS any longer. You betcha.
Anybody who wants to read in depth about Sarah Palin's long-time association with the New Apostolic Reformation can go to Talk2Action. Here, for years now, analysts like Bill Berkowitz and Bruce Wilson have been reporting on the spine-chilling infiltration of the NAR into Congress and other national leadership spheres of influence.