Back in the 1980s before helicopter moms and soccer dads were conceived, and unfortunately thrust into our worlds, parents pretty much left their kids to the coaches when it came to things like freshman basketball.

School districts didn’t worry so much about appearances then, either. Inevitably, each rural Iowa freshman boys team wouldn’t have enough uniforms to fit all the players appropriately, meaning there would be a 5’3,” 115-pound, 14-year-old guard drowning in an extra-large jersey, tripping over his own shirttails as he dribbled the ball off his feet during the final two minutes of the game, as his team trailed 68-29.

In short the kid looked ridiculous. People either felt sorry for him (if they were decent) or turned away like you do when you see someone making an embarrassing wedding toast. Or they mocked him mercilessly. Some people just don’t belong on a basketball court and the preposterously outsized uniform exaggerated what we already knew.

This brings us to the 1988 presidential campaign — the first one I followed with any adult interest.

One of the more famous images to emerge from that campaign is of the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, riding around in that tank, swamped in a military helmet with a wrap-around microphone. The image was devastating.

Dukakis bounced around in the top of that tank, looking every bit the part of a freshman ballplayer in a uniform that didn’t fit.

“At a General Dynamics plant in Michigan, the Duke wanted to show he was no softie on defense, so took a spin in a tank,” says DigitalJournalist.org, which ranks the photo of Dukakis doing this as one of the 100 that changed the world. “Compared with the dashing WWII pilot Bush, the little Dukakis came off a clown, and the photo op blew up in his face.”

Dukakis was trying to be something he was not. Voters read it right away. It wasn’t the only reason George H.W. Bush defeated him, but the moment sure hurt the governor’s campaign.

In the 2004 campaign, the Iowa Republican Party sent out a super clever news release with the headline: “Welcome ‘Dainty’ John Forbes Kerry to the Iowa State Fair.”

At issue: the apparently life-defining way Kerry ate a famously messy Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich in Des Moines. Kerry ordered Swiss cheese with the sandwich, which is a real mistake. You’re supposed to ask for Cheese Whiz with it, and then slam back the sandwich like it’s a Tylenol. Gulp, swallow, gone.

In front of reporters and photographers, “Kerry was caught nibbling daintily at his sandwich,” The Washington Post reported. So gleeful Iowa GOP’ers jumped all over this.

Dukakis had that tank picture. Clinton had Lewinsky, and Kerry can’t eat a sandwich like a steelworker.

No such problems fester for former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose highly popular show on TLC, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” shows us that she’s an authentic rural gal, an outdoorswoman, who effortlessly handles guns, dogs and fish — as well as the shotgun seat of an RV.

On this past Sunday’s episode, Palin took to an Alaska fishing boat and got right in the action, helping the captain and crew to pull halibut aboard. She even took a turn at bashing the fish with a club (to knock them out so the meat isn’t harmed, which is the sort of fascinating information one expects from TLC). Palin also cut some of the haul for market. She did all this with natural aplomb.

More revealing than the fish bashing and gun loading and kid scolding, though, was Palin’s easy banter with the working-class folks who people her show. There’s no Swiss in Palin’s cheesesteak, so to speak.

Several conservatives I follow on Twitter were atwitter with Mrs. Palin Sunday night. They wondered if Barack Obama could handle the “slime line” on which the iced halibut were moved from boat to packaging to market. Words like “authentic” kept popping up in the tweets. Hard to argue with that.

At least one liberal I know told me the show made her want to travel to Alaska, such is the beautiful scenery that backdrops Palin’s reality show.

Iowa is full of hard-working people. It’s a place with a blue-collar rhythm in which hunting is more than sport. It’s a culture.

“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” captures some of the spirit of this culture.

There are no oversized basketball jerseys in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”