Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar, by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, PublicAffairs, 306 pages, $26.95
The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star, by Matthew Continetti, Sentinel, 256 pages, $25.95
Going Rogue: An American Life, by Sarah Palin, HarperCollins,
413 pages, $28.99
No recent political figure has ignited the fury of the commentariat like former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Shortly after inducing a pulse in the zombified John McCain campaign with a rousing speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, the little-known politician was dismissed by Salon’s Cintra Wilson as a “power-mad, backwater beauty-pageant casualty” whose conservative ideology made the feminist writer “feel as horrified as a ghetto Jew watching the rise of National Socialism.”
The editor-in-chief of The New Republic, Martin Peretz, sniffed that the candidate “was pretty like a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy’s” and that it was “good to see that the Palin family didn’t torture poor Bristol [unmarried, pregnant, and 17 at the time], at least in the open.” The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, a self-identified conservative who calls his Daily Dish “the most popular one-man political blog in the world,” persistently suggested that Trig Palin, the governor’s then-four-month-old baby with Down Syndrome, was likely not Sarah’s biological child; and demanded the full release of her obstetrical records, stopping just short of insisting he be allowed to examine the placenta. If Barack Obama is hounded by a small group of reality-challenged “birthers” who doubt the president was born in Hawaii, Palin has more than matched him with what might be called her “after-birthers.”
This is ugly stuff, the sort of warmed-over misogyny you expect from early ’70s Hollywood, not semi-serious writers and pundits. But Palin’s admirers have issues with modulation and mental balance too. Watching last year’s vice presidential debate, National Review’s Rich Lowry squealed that Palin’s smile “sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.” As happens so often with what passes for political discourse on the right and left, those of us who stand athwart the red-blue dichotomy find ourselves yelling, “Please make it stop!”
Palin herself has added to the sense that something just ain’t right. Resigning as governor last July, she delivered a farewell speech charitably described by various analysts as “rambling” and “at times confusing.” Despite the fact that she had 18 months left in her first term and had not publicly announced whether she would stand for re-election, Palin averred that she was not prepared to abide “lame-duck status.” Nor was she long on metaphorical integrity. “Many just accept that lame-duck status, and they hit the road, draw a paycheck, and kind of milk it,” she declared. “We know we can effect positive political change from outside government at this moment in time.…I know when it’s time to pass the ball for victory.” She closed with a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, saying, “We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.” Citing a military leader who was relieved of his command for insubordination during the Korean War may burnish Palin’s proud reputation for “going rogue” (that is, going off script), but it was an odd selection for a speech about a voluntary resignation.
MacArthur is more famous for a different quip: “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” Two new biographies of Palin—along with the self-proclaimed hockey mom’s own memoir, Going Rogue, which set a record for advance orders—are helping to make sure that she won’t fade away any time soon. Together, this trio of books offers more information and context about Palin than all but her most ardent detractors and fans could possibly stand. Yet the volumes, alone or together, still don’t give a clear picture of either the woman herself or what it is about her that drives her fans and critics alike to the edge of insanity.
More important, the books strongly, if unintentionally, suggest that Palin does not have what it takes to redefine a Republican Party whose future looks about as bright as that of General Motors. Despite her impressive fan base and her ability to turn out huge crowds, Palin’s own program for “The Way Forward” (as she names a chapter in Going Rogue) makes plain that she is last year’s political model, a vehicle for a backward-looking GOP bent on blending generic social conservatism, small-government encomiums, big government spending, unconvincing outsider outrage, and status quo foreign adventurism. With a Saint Reagan statue firmly glued to the dashboard, of course.
Whatever mojo such rhetorical posturing once had, Americans have heard it all before, most recently during the administration of George W. Bush, who with the able assistance of a Republican majority managed to double overall federal spending in real dollars over the course of eight years. If the Republicans are to regroup and advance in another direction, they will need something other than warmed-over Karl Rove speeches.
As its title implies, The Persecution of Sarah Palin, written by Weekly Standard staffer Matthew Continetti, is flatly sympathetic to its subject, whom he paints as the victim of a conspiracy as vast and punishing as the Alaskan wilderness. “When they weren’t mangling facts,” Continetti writes, “the press did their best to undermine her accomplishments.” The core of Palin’s immense appeal to jes’ plain folks, he says, is also the core of upper-crust contempt for her: “The American meritocratic elite places a high priority on verbal felicity and the attitudes, practices, and jargon that one picks up during graduate seminars in nonprofit management, government accounting, and the semiotics of Percy Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark.’ ” Palin, he notes, “speaks in a different patois.” This is more than a little plausible: I can remember college-professor friends of mine confessing that, in addition to Palin’s pro-life stance, it was ultimately her flat, grating accent, her University of Idaho B.A., and her flute performance in the 1984 Miss Alaska beauty contest that rendered them “horrified.”
But if Continetti helps explain the vitriol of many on the left, he fails to grapple with a more moderate but also widespread sense that Palin was simply not up to the task of serving as vice president. High-profile conservatives such as David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, and Kathleen Parker became Palin critics not because she was populist or pro-life (or a weak-winded flautist), but because she came across as manifestly unqualified for the job. If her résumé (small-town mayor, then short-term governor of a low-population state) was thin upon nomination, her performance in key moments afterward was often cringe-inducing. “Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate,” wrote Parker in 2008. “Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League.” Even Continetti acknowledges that Palin flubbed the Couric interview, which was packed with softball questions on subjects such as the newspapers and magazines she read and the Supreme Court cases she considered especially important. Given the compressed public schedule of the campaign, Palin needed to score with every shot she took. More often than not, the high school basketball champ chucked an air ball.
Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, who covered the Palin campaign for CBS News and Fox News Channel, respectively, have a theory as to why. “Palin is neither an umblemished victim of fiendish, unpatriotic forces nor a preposterous dolt worthy only of a smirk,” they write in Sarah From Alaska. She is “outwardly confident but frequently shows signs of profound insecurity” and is “hypersensitive to criticism and naysayers.” That confidence and hypersensitivity got in the way of the preparation that might have helped her through what was surely a very rough political gauntlet, a long-shot presidential campaign conducted in the midst of two unpopular wars and an economic panic.
Palin’s penchant for shading the truth, even on trivial matters, didn’t help. One of the governor’s biggest applause lines on the stump was that she had said “thanks, but no thanks” to federal money for the notorious “bridge to nowhere” at Gravina Island. In fact, Palin supported the project until it became controversial and, after it was killed, refused to return the federal funds, using them to construct what Conroy and Walshe call a “road to nowhere” leading to where the bridge would have been. To paraphrase another of her regular lines, that’s absolutely politics as usual.
In Going Rogue, co-written with the journalist Lynn Vincent, Palin comes across as personable and likeable. The volume is filled with self-deprecating stories, childhood memories, moments of self-doubt, triumphs over adversity, and appeals to God and elders for advice. “My life truly began [when] I became a mom,” she says in a representative passage. “I had no idea how this tiny person, my son, would turn me inside out and upside down with all the all-consuming love that swelled my heart from the second he was born. As clichéd as it sounds, that was the happiest day of my life.”