Tom Degan has it right: Letterman's joke was in poor taste and not really that funny. Palin's response was one part exaggerated moral outrage (it's more likely the Palins were angry, not shocked and hurt, by Letterman's bad joke; angry in the way that a drunk gets "angry" when challenged to a fight in a bar) and three parts calculated, engineered, purposeful politicking, rhetorical posturing that included their daughters at their choosing. But if calculated, why so laughably stupid?
Watching Palin in this latest episode made me realize that some political players are simultaneously calculating and mediocre. Watching them is like watching a movie made by Edward D. Wood Jr. By now everyone knows that the mediocrity --and often outright incompetence-- of Wood's moviemaking became part of the aesthetic identity of his movies. Similarly, but in an ideologically supercharged way, Palin's awkwardness when confronted with even slightly intellectually demanding questions, her seemingly unironic embrace of an adolescent tone or a Sunday School sternness, have all become part of her aesthetic identity.
Except, of course, that this particular train wreck of a director has her own constituency, some of whom are prepared to kill for her. And that's where Palin's transparent calculated behavior, unaware of its mediocrity and absurdity, should serve to educate us rather than merely entertain us. Imagine government run by Ed Wood. Most of Wood's laughable glitches and obvious cheap tricks resulted from Wood's Attention Deficit approach to filmmaking; he was unfocused, uninterested in details and processes, anxious to exploit personal relationships to get things done rather than go through deliberative channels. Since the process was shallow, the product was shallow, its flaws forgotten by its maker, drowned in a trough of alcohol and self-justification.
Similarly, Palin (like her running made John McCain) represent a class of anemically stupid politicians who believe they have created artifacts of absolute genius just because they fancy themselves creators. Irritated by demands that they submit their work to rational criteria, they attack the criteria as elitist, insisting on mythical plain-folks filters with which to view the shaky productions that hide the depressing reality of their agendas.