Even to a Britain that now imagines itself inured to shock over political resignations, Sarah Palin's eve of Independence Day effort came as quite a thunderbolt. In Wasilla on Friday, in what I suspect was homage to Hazel "I love my community so much I'm quitting as Communities Secretary" Blears, the former Vice Presidential nominee called a news conference to reveal, in a stream of semi-consciousness to put Bletchley Park on overtime for months, that she is yielding her post as Alaska's Governor because that's how she can best serve the Alaska she loves above all.
It's a sensational development by any standards, other than her own selection as John McCain's running mate, and still no one has much clue what it means. Some wonder about a federal investigation into corruption over building contracts she has awarded, although the FBI denies this. Others accept her friends' claim that she has simply had enough of being chief clown in the media circus, and wants a quiet life. Yet a subsequent reference to a "higher calling" hints that a shred of ambition survives after all, and that she intends to challenge Barack Obama for the White House in 2012.
That idea may provoke more hilarity here than in the US, because we know Governor Palin best through Tina Fey's uncanny Saturday Night Live impression. With Obama meeting President Medvedev this week to agree on slashing nuclear arsenals, the mind goes back to Ms Fey's take on how Palin explained her foreign policy qualifications. During one skit, after Amy Poehler's Hillary had delivered a carefully nuanced address on why she regarded diplomacy as the cornerstone of all foreign policy, Fey's Palin counter-struck with: "And I can see Russia from my house."
Combined with the "Palin rap", during which the Governor sat in the studio grinning while Poehler shot dead a moose and chanted "All the mavericks in the house put your hands up" (up went Palin's arms), that appeared to be that for her Oval Office hopes. Surely no one, however brassy and sassy and a little high school bitchy, could land safely after such a vertical ascent from obscure governor of a irrelevant state to a top-ranked YouTube laughing stock.
Yet something odd has happened to the received wisdom that the one thing no major political figure can survive is ridicule. Silvio Berlusconi could hardly take his prolonged audition for a berth at Chipperfield's to more outlandish lengths if he wore size 46 platform shoes. He survives, and so does Mrs Palin as joint frontrunner (with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee) in the early stages of the marathon to be Republican nominee next time round, despite her extended kith and kin.
So off-puttingly weird are her relatives, blood and otherwise, that she might have won more public sympathy had she begun the resignation statement by stating that she was giving up politics to spend less time with her family.
A sister-in-law is nicked for burglary, teenage daughter Bristol split from boyfriend Levi Johnston soon after the birth of their son Track (the post-partum Bristol then coming out strongly for teenage abstinence). Like Debbie Rowe – rumours persist that Mrs Palin isn't the biological mother of her own youngest son Trig – Todd is suspected of serially abusing his position as Alaska's First Dude ... it's as if some network drama executive, deranged after a rival laced his Perrier with LSD, decided to merge Shameless, The Munsters and Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and put the hybrid out in a reality format.
The temptation, now more than ever, is to dismiss Mrs Palin as a curio or grotesque with no future, and restrict all speculation to the past in general, and specifically to a fascinating "What if?" from last year that removes her from the equation altogether.
What if John McCain hadn't appointed her his running mate on the briefest introduction, and played safe with Mitt Romney instead? With a respected businessman rather than a half-baked Alaskan on the ticket, the old man might have benefited from the economic crisis that combined with Palin's unfortunate media forays to explode his credibility. Until his flakily melodramatic response to the banking calamity coincided with the realisation that Mrs P knew as much about economics as geopolitics, he was tied with Obama in national polls, if not marginally ahead. After those twin disasters, he was never within touching distance again.
An exceedingly long and detailed profile in Vanity Fair dwells on Palin's indolence, lack of curiosity and other inadequacies as a candidate, but most lovingly on the diva tantrums and monomaniacal arrogance that led several who encountered her then to raid the psychiatric manuals for case studies of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Yet mental illness or infirmity is hardly a barrier to political power. In fact, as Maureen Dowd points out in The New York Times, by exhibiting the signs so early Mrs Palin has a handy jump start on the likes of Johnson and Nixon, who sneakily waited until they were President to exhibit the evidence.
There are those in the States, led by the incomparably daft neo-Con commentator Bill Kristol, who see her resignation as proof that she is crazy like a fox. Others such as Dowd think she's crazy like "a nutter". Reading Friday's statement, the edge would appear to be with Dowd.
Although arguably the most moving abdication speech since Edward VIII relinquished his crown for the woman he loved, the random use of capital letters and exclamation marks ("We are doing well! I wish you'd hear MORE from the media about Your state's progress...") hint darkly at the further end of the green ink spectrum.
Yet for all that and despite everything (the myriad ethics investigations, the $150,000 credit crunch spending spree on her election wardrobe, the family, the ignorance), this force of nature remains the pin-up girl of the Republican Right. If the GOP machine stays on Rush Limbaugh Drive, aping the post-1997 Conservatives by deciding its fatal flaw is not being nasty and insular enough, the woman who accused Obama of "consorting with terrorists" and grinned contentedly when rednecks screeched "Kill him" would seem the natural choice for 2012.
Alright, it seems ridiculous to imagine primary voters giving the nomination to one who, when asked about that higher calling, replied: "I think any average, hard-working America whose heart is in the right place, who has the work ethics that is required, and can articulate what it is that America needs right now is going to make a darn good president."
A folksily illiterate, bone idle chancer who takes direct instruction from the Lord (she wrote one Twitter entry about her resignation in the guise of the deity, signing it "Creator"; like David Icke before her, Ms Palin's previous career was in sports-casting) and governed an oil rich state... America couldn't go another one of those could it? Not so soon?
Who knows. In this desert of confusion and speculation, the one oasis of certainty is that when Sarah Palin lets her mind's eye roam, she sees herself atop that "city upon a hill", that shining citadel of hope to the world, with Todd, Track, Trig, Trick, Truck, Twat and the rest beside her. God have mercy on our souls if that doesn't prove a mirage, but it would be dishonest to deny a frisson of excitement at the prospect of finding out.Reuse content