Myth Alaska

Sarah Palin bounces a reality check.


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."

Palin's style in Going Rogue even managed to charm the lefty literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish, who wrote in his New York Times blog, "I find the voice undeniably authentic.…It is the voice of small-town America, with its folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric (itself a rhetorical trope), love of country and instinctive (not doctrinal) piety."

Fish may be right that Palin's voice is internally consistent throughout the book, but for those of us not wedded to such a New Criticism aesthetic, Going Rogue reads like a text that is almost frantically trying to settle scores, real and imagined. Many passages get back at old Alaska nemeses and detail the shoddy treatment Palin received from John McCain's handlers before, during, and especially after the 2008 election. Even in describing her brief experience at the University of Hawaii, Palin seems to be shadowboxing with political opponents. "It turned out Hawaii was a little too perfect," she recalls of her time spent in Barack Obama's home state. "Perpetual sunshine isn't necessarily conducive to serious academics for eighteen-year-old Alaska girls. Besides, we were homesick for mountains, cooler seasons, and even snow. After that first semester, we realized we'd better transfer back to something closer to reality so we could actually earn our degrees." Hawaii isn't conducive to thoughtfulness or hard work, get it?

Despite claiming to be "like every other ordinary American," Palin is not the voice of "small-town America" as much as she is a politician vying to be the voice of those who either don't come from or don't trust major cultural and political centers. Small-town America hasn't really existed since the 1920 census, when for the first time more people lived in cities than in rural areas. In her rhetoric and demeanor, Palin is unabashedly populist, and like all populists, when she talks about the past, she is describing not reality but an idyll, a dream of an Eden that never really existed.

One of the flashpoints of Palin's vice presidential candidacy was her quick dismissal of college grads who got a passport, a backpack, and a plane ticket to Europe. No siree, she got a job (as if those are the only two possible decisions available). There is a lot of meaning packed into such a statement, and it resonates with voters who feel they are being played by well-connected insiders who look down on flyover country. In light of candidate Obama's notorious statement about fearful rubes clinging to their guns and their religion, Palin and Obama have emerged as archetypal opponents for a new generation of American politicians, with Palin as a pragmatic nativist and Obama as an idealistic cosmopolitan. Though neither speaks a foreign language, they are night and day, fire and ice, Alaska and Hawaii.

Such mythic identities are powerful but they ultimately have little to do with the way politicians actually govern. And it may be that in our moment of protracted economic crisis and foreign policy blundering we have finally reached the point where voters care more about policy than promulgation. Whatever he said on the campaign trail about repudiating George W. Bush's legacy, the sad fact is that Barack Obama is following in his predecessor's footsteps when it comes to foreign policy, the treatment of suspected terrorists, stimulus spending, bailouts, and the expansion of government entitlement programs. Notwithstanding his pretty speechifying, Obama is tanking in the polls because such policies continue to be viewed as offensive, ineffective, overreaching, or some combination of the three.

Similarly, Palin's frequent invocations in Going Rogue of free markets and rugged individualism ring false coming from a vice presidential candidate who wholeheartedly endorsed the Troubled Asset Relief Program at a point when only politicians supported it (the people, bless their pointed little heads, never have). As a former governor of a state that receives about $14,000 in federal money per resident (only the District of Columbia gets more) and whose total spending increased 16 percent between 2007 and 2009, she is not very credible as a fiscal conservative.

Palin lip-syncs perfectly to the GOP's greatest hits: "How about cutting…payroll taxes? Giving people control over more of the money they've earned; now that's real stimulus. Get federal spending under control, and then step aside and watch this economy roar back to life." That's all well and good, but nothing in Palin's record suggests she is capable of delivering on such notions or crafting the policies that would make it possible to do so. Meanwhile, Palin makes sure to hit all the major social-conservative notes as well: She invokes God almost as much as she invokes Reagan, she is anti-abortion, and she is against gay marriage (a position, she is quick and correct to note, that she shares with Barack Obama). On foreign policy, she offers only stay-the-course generalities. "I understand that many Americans are war-weary," she writes, "but we do have a responsibility to complete our missions in these countries so that we can keep our homeland safe." Palin's inability to chart anything like a truly new political course means that despite her immense popularity she is unlikely to be the standard-bearer of 21st-century Republicans. In short, she is no Barry Goldwater.

Yet as both Sarah From Alaska and The Persecution of Sarah Palin underscore, despite (or maybe because of) the intense animosity she has called forth from liberal Democratic opponents, Palin is sure to be a key player in attempts to rebrand the GOP as something other than the loser party in 2010, 2012, and beyond. Her surprising resignation as governor bespeaks an impulsiveness that is at odds with the discipline and strategy required for a long-haul role, but her ability to draw massive crowds (and fundraising dollars), and to start a national conversation via Facebook and The Wall Street Journal about "death panels" in health care legislation, suggests Palin has a strong and perhaps instinctual grasp of many Americans' hopes and anxieties. 

And if Dick Nixon could come back from a humiliating vice presidential run and a godawful retirement speech, surely Palin can. Or at least try. Contrary to a controversial November 17 Newsweek cover, Palin is not necessarily "bad news for the GOP—and for everybody else, too." The real problem is that, celebrity aside, there's not much here that you could call "news" at all.

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.tv and reason.com.