WASHINGTON — The woman who was prematurely counted in is out. And the woman who was prematurely counted out is in.
In their twin performances Sunday — Hillary on "Meet the Press" in Washington and Sarah at her farewell picnic in Fairbanks — two of the most celebrated and polarizing women in American political history offered a fascinating contrast.
Hillary, who so often in the past came across as aggrieved, paranoid and press-loathing, was confident and comfortable in her role as top diplomat, discussing the world with mastery and shrugging off suggestions that she has been disappeared by her former rival, the president.
Sarah, who was once a blazingly confident media darling, came across as aggrieved, paranoid and press-loathing in her new role as bizarre babe-at-large.
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Sarah once criticized Hillary for being a whiny presidential contender, arguing that women who want "to progress this country" should not complain about being under a "sharper microscope," but instead should just work harder to prove themselves capable. Now Sarah is a whiny presidential contender, complaining about the sharper microscope that women wanting to progress this country are under and rejecting advice to work harder to prove herself capable.
The Alaskan who shot to stardom a year ago as the tough embodiment of Diana the Huntress has now stepped down as governor and morphed into what the Republicans always caricatured Hillary as — preachy, screachy and angry.
And Hillary, who is at long last in a job that she earned on her own merits, has lost that irritating question mark she used to carry around above her head like a thunder cloud: What is Hillary owed because of what she gave up, and went through, for Bill? During the campaign, Hillary got in trouble for pretending to be more than she was, for bragging about dodging bullets in Bosnia and making peace in Northern Ireland. But now Hillary does not have to tell stretchers. She's fully qualified for her job and doesn't sound defensive. Sarah has taken up Hillary's old habit of keeping grudges and playing the victim and blaming the press for her own mistakes in judgment and gaffes.
If Sarah's problem on the trail was that she knew too little, Hillary's was that she knew too much. Hillary's wonkiness got in the way of her ability to make people comfortable.
Sarah, lacking Hillary's cerebral side, has decided to wing it, Quayle-style, and go only for the visceral. That's why she now sounds like a demagogue, embodying grievances and playing to people's worst impulses.
Hillary's radiant robustness, on the other hand, even with a sore elbow, makes the dictators in Iran and North Korea seem like frail, little creatures.
Obama advisers say privately that the president truly respects the woman he ran against, and that they have a good relationship, so good it has even surprised Hillary.
His support of her has allowed her to keep her paranoia in check — even with Richard Holbrooke and Joe Biden biting off parts of her portfolio.
In her cuckoo speech, Sarah warned Alaskans to "be wary of accepting government largess. It doesn't come free." Funny coming from a woman who charged the Alaskan taxpayers every time she worked from Wasilla.
She also went after that old conservative villain Hollywood, saying, "They use these delicate, tiny, very talented celebrity starlets" for "their anti-Second Amendment causes."
Sarah seems happily oblivious that she benefited from Hollywood casting techniques. Just as movie directors have beautiful young actresses playing nuclear physicists and Harvard professors, the novelty of a beautiful former beauty queen and TV reporter cast in a powerful role that has featured dour, gray old men like Dick Cheney was thrilling. At first.
As McCain pal and Republican strategist Mike Murphy so sagely observed recently: "If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?"
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE