It turns out Thomas Edison and Sarah Palin share a birthday, and it's today, February 11. At first glance these two might not seem to have much in common. Edison held more than a thousand patents, including those for the phonograph, the stock ticker, and the electric light bulb. Palin was governor of Alaska for a while, and then she cut down some trees on TV. But Palin might rival Edison for productivity when it comes to cultural memes. The governor-turned-media-personality has inspired and popularized any number of tropes, catchphrases, and images in the past two and a half years. Was there ever a time before Palin? What was the political landscape like back then? Before Wasilla, hockey moms, "you betcha," "going rogue"? Lipstick on a pitbull? Russia, as seen from houses?
Just as Edison improved, riffed on, and sometimes took wholesale credit for the ideas of others, Palin didn't create out of whole cloth everything the public now associates with her. She wasn't the first to wear what are now sold as "Sarah Palin glasses," and she wasn't the first to shoot a caribou. But now these are all part of the Palin association-tree. She definitely wasn't the first to use the term "blood libel," but she was probably responsible for more people using that phrase in 2011 than in the entire previous decade combined. (In fairness, she may have pioneered the idea of using surveyor's symbols on a map of political districts.)
Along the same lines, it's worth noting that Edison didn't actually invent the light bulb. Others had gotten there first. Edison's innovation was the long-burning carbon filament. That's part of why we remember him as the primary inventor today. But Edison also had the business sense to found a company around the electric light, and the tenacity to hang on through a six-year court battle over the patent rights. These qualities have as much to do with his legacy.
Looking at Palin's media appearances since the 2008 presidential election--the book tour, the reality show, the high-profile Tea Party-courting, the defensive response to the Tuscon shootings last month--it's hard not to notice a similar kind of aggressive self-promotion. If Palin has an interest, it's personal branding--this seems fairly evident now that she's trademarked her own name. It's something the famously business-minded Wizard of Menlo Park might have understood.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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