Going Rogue: An American Life, by Sarah Palin (413 pp. HarperCollins, $28.99)
Not the least of Sarah Palin’s talents as a politician is her singular ability to drive her detractors to contradiction. On one hand, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential runner up is dismissed as an obvious joke – a “Caribou Barbie” trifle at best or a right-wing, gun-toting, moose-killing, “religious fanatic” at worst. Yet the foaming disdain for Palin from some precincts of the Left and the news media – and the volumes of ink spilled assuring the public of her utter unfitness for higher political office – belie the charge that she is not to be taken seriously.
So it is with Going Rogue, Palin’s much-anticipated memoir. If early reviews of the book (co-authored with Lynn Vincent) are to be believed, it is the bitter lament of a woman with no future in national politics, a score-settling exercise against all those who relegated her to the Alaskan obscurity from which the McCain campaign once plucked her. Curious, then, that the organs of the online Left, from the Huffington Post to Media Matters, have been consumed with trying to expose the alleged “falsehoods” in the book. And equally odd that the Associated Press assigned no fewer than 10 reporters to “fact check” Going Rogue. How passé can Palin be if her critics are determined to parse her every word?
The short answer, which Going Rogue does much to substantiate, is that Palin is anything but washed up. While the book is frustratingly tight-lipped about her future ambitions, it reveals Palin as a compassionate mother, a combative campaigner, and canny politician whose presence on the failed presidential ticket was no fluke. Her critics, in short, are right to be worried.
Going Rogue begins in August 2008, when Palin received the call from John McCain that would soon transform her from a local-girl-made-good into the most divisive woman in the country not named Clinton. A different sort of politician might have been taken aback by the prospect of joining a presidential ticket, but Palin reveals that, while honored and humbled, she was not surprised. It was, as she saw it, a logical progression in her career. Palin’s critics will no doubt seize on the admission as evidence of egomania, but it seems more consistent with her uniquely Alaskan sense of ambition, a frontier-country spirit that counsels one to capitalize on life’s precious opportunities. “As every Iditarod musher knows, if you’re not the lead dog the view never changes,” Palin writes.
As this bit of folksy wisdom suggests, Alaska is very much central to Going Rogue, just as it is to Palin’s political persona. Some of the book’s most vivid passages are devoted to her home state and her childhood in Wasilla, near the Talkeetna Mountains. From halibut tacos and reindeer sausage, to her sports-crazy family’s routine in her childhood of shutting their ears whenever newscasts came on, so as not to hear the scores of games that had yet to be seen on Alaska’s then-delayed television broadcasts, it is a richly rendered portrait of life in what many in the “lower 48” would still consider the wild.
But one suspects that even in these seemingly innocent passages Palin’s foes will find fodder. For instance, she has only contempt for Hollywood activists who complain about her state’s wolf population control programs, and she is a refreshingly unapologetic defender of the hunting life. Caribou, Palin enthuses, is the “cleanest organic protein on God’s green earth.” Pictures of the Palin clan, with freshly killed caribou atop their car hood, or skinning harbor seals, attest that this affection for the kill is not merely a politician’s pose. Her position on that issue, like her politics generally, is straightforward: “We eat, therefore we hunt,” she explains. Take that, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Yet Palin can also write movingly, especially about her family. Her father, the product of an unloving home, was “determined not to replicate his family’s brokenness in his own.” Her husband and former “first dude” Todd swept her off her feet. After meeting him for the first time high school, she whispered, “Thank you god.”
Palin also writes powerfully about the personal devastation of her two miscarriages, and she does not hide her initial despair that her last child, Trig, would be born with Down syndrome. With a sympathy she lacks in the left-wing caricature, Palin relates her agonizing decision to have a child with the congenital disorder. At one point in the pregnancy, she wondered whether she had enough compassion to carry Trig to term. Despite her pro-life views, she says that she could well understand why some women would choose an abortion. Today, Palin has embraced her decision, right down to the bumper sticker some supporters sent her: “My kid has more chromosomes than your kid!”
The bulk of the book is given over to politics. Palin traces her political career, from her first seat on the Wasilla city council (population in 2000: 5,469), to her two terms as mayor of the town, to her rise through the “good ol’ boys” network in the capital of Juneau to become Alaska’s governor. She is unsparing about the culture of corruption in the capital, which she attributes in part to Juneau’s remoteness from the rest of the state (with no overland access, flights and ferries are the only way into the capital). “Foreign tourists on cruise ships had better access to lawmakers in session” than Alaskan residents, she writes.
During the presidential campaign, Democrats mocked this part of her biography as small-town politics. But Palin shows that even in a small town she was no stranger to the rough-and-tumble tactics so often seen on the national stage. For instance, when she cut her own pay as a newly elected Wasilla mayor, honoring a pledge to do so, her opponents claimed that she was trying to get into a lower tax bracket. When she ran for reelection, her challenger scoffed that his opponent was a “cheerleader” and a “Spice Girl.” Then as now, it was not a particularly convincing charge: Palin won with 75 percent of the vote.
Of course, Going Rogue has not climbed the best seller charts for its insights into Alaskan politics. The most notable parts of the book deal with Palin’s experiences on the presidential campaign. It is no secret by now that Palin had a strained relationship with some McCain campaign staffers, though not, apparently, with McCain himself, for whom she has only praise. There are three main villains: campaign manager Steve Schmidt, a veteran of the 2004 Bush reelection campaign; campaign staffer Nicolle Wallace; and a mainstream media that, as Palin sees it, was all to eager to print their damaging leaks about her.
Pulling no punches, Palin charges that Schmidt and Wallace tried to throw her under the “media bus.” They did so, she alleges, by simultaneously limiting her media exposure and marginalizing her, and by pushing her into ill-conceived interviews that backfired. Palin says that Schmidt repeatedly shot down her ideas, from her complaint that the McCain campaign was prematurely giving up on Michigan one month before Election Day to her request that she deliver a concession speech introducing John McCain. (“Going rogue” was the term that McCain campaign managers coined to describe such off-message moments.) When he called in a nutritionist to manage her diet, it was the last straw. Palin found herself thinking:
“[Y]ou’ve told me how to dress, what to say, who to talk to, a lot of people not to talk to, who my heroes are supposed to be, and we’re still losing. Now you’re telling me what to eat?”
Nicolle Wallace earns a dishonorable mention for getting Palin on a now-notorious interview with CBS’s Katie Couric. In an unsteady performance, Palin had difficulty answering even basic questions like which newspapers she read. But it’s not clear that Wallace was to blame. Palin herself admits that she “choked on a couple of responses,” though she also blames Couric’s “biased questions” and lack of adequate preparation. Less convincingly, Palin insists that she was told that it would be a “mellow” interview about “balancing motherhood and my life as governor.” Even granting that this was so, Palin does not come off well. Her occasional shout outs in the book to Fox News and conservative talk radio hosts will surely be appreciated, but a national politician and a possible vice president should be comfortable handling the media, whatever its biases. Ultimately, Palin ends up sounding like something the self-identified “jock” would never appreciate: a bad sport.
Palin’s is probably right to say that she was mismanaged by Schmidt. But she might have considered the situation from his perspective. Whatever the merits of her off-script suggestion that McCain should have battled on in Michigan, it made the campaign seem in disarray and contributed to the “free fall” that, as Palin herself admits, characterized it in its final days. And while Schmidt’s censorship of Palin might have been excessive, one can hardly fault the campaign for its reluctance to let her speak freely after the disastrous interview with Katie Couric.
In strange contrast to Palin’s resentment of the McCain campaign is her uncritical view of McCain. That is despite the fact that the senator’s weaknesses as a candidate were arguably the greater of the campaign’s liabilities. No one watching the presidential debates, for instance, could have sincerely agreed with her insistence that McCain did “great.” Palin herself hints at the problem when she makes a passing reference to the campaign’s belated focus on the economy. But she declines to note that this focus reflected McCain’s interest in the Middle East, which for him took precedence over economic matters. Amidst a global financial meltdown, McCain was running on the wrong issue.
If Palin’s post-election reckoning sometimes does not go far enough, she is much more effective in demolishing the disinformation, manufactured scandals and outright slanders that dogged her during the campaign.
Contrary to charges that she was improperly vetted, she points out that the McCain campaign camp was very well informed about her background: They knew everything from her voting record on the Wasilla town council to the fact that her daughter Bristol was pregnant – this at a time when she thought only family members privy to the information. In a sly dig at Obama, Palin quips that the McCain campaign even knew what sermons visiting pastors had delivered at her church.
Nor is it true, as some on the Left claimed, that Palin had supported banning books as Wasilla mayor. At one point in the campaign, there even emerged a list of specific books that she had banned. That was particularly odd, she notes, “because some of the books I had supposedly banned had not even been written yet.”
Impressively but unnecessarily, Palin even deigns to answer the lunatic conspiracy theory – an obsession of The Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan – that she was not Trig’s real mother. Perhaps the best rebuttal was offered to a skeptical questioner by her father: “I know Trig is hers, dumbass. I was there when he popped out.” That’s surely the last thing that needs to be said about that pernicious diversion, even if it won’t pacify the conspiracy theorists.
Palin has her own, if more benign fixations. While the outsider populist image certainly suits her, she often overplays her hand. Palin repeatedly touts her family as “everyday Americans,” or “ordinary Americans” or “regular people from all walks of life.” In case that’s not clear, she stresses that they “like to work union jobs, to be blue-collar… to have our kids at public schools.” Not only does this read like a populist version of identity politics, but it rings at least partially untrue: Spin it any way you like, “ordinary Americans” don’t get $5 million book advances. The aw-shucks sermonizing also sits uneasily with Palin’s penchant for name checking everyone from Pascal, to Napoleon, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Thomas Paine. Palin may dislike the “lamestream media,” but she obviously take seriously the knock that she’s an intellectual lightweight.
For those looking for a deeper statement of political principles, Going Rogue can be something of a letdown. Palin’s vision of less intrusive government and respect for equality is reasonable enough but vague. In a closing section of the book, Palin does set forth some of what she calls “common sense conservative efforts,” but it’s doubtful that policy wonks will be impressed by her sound bite-sized endorsement of tax cutting and less regulation (which taxes? which regulations?). Palin’s core economic insight – “never forget you’re spending other people’s money” – is undeniably useful at a time of soaring deficits and imprudent government spending, but one might have wished for a more elaborate expression of political convictions from a possible future presidential candidate.
The greater disappointment is that Palin remains mysterious about her plans. She says that she left the governorship “to travel and raise money and awareness for worthy causes.” Is a 2012 presidential campaign among them? The reader is left to speculate.
What Going Rogue does confirm is that critics count Palin out at their peril. A skillful politician whose ability to connect with average voters is a real asset, she can only benefit from the populist strain of Big-Government skepticism ushered in by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. Love her or hate her, the notion that Palin’s time has passed increasingly looks like the wishful thinking of her critics. Sarah Palin may be going “rogue.” But she’s not going away.