In Search of the Real Sarah Palin

A review of Joe McGinniss's The Rogue


In an America where a whopping 66 percent of adults hold an unfavorable view of 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (according to a recent Bloomberg poll), author Joe McGinniss has done something truly remarkable. He actually makes the short-serving former Alaska governor and widely panned reality TV star a slightly more sympathetic character, at least for the regrettable time one wastes reading The Rogue, his sketchily sourced compendium of low blows and inconsistent accusations.

McGinniss, who came to prominence 40 years ago with his groundbreaking study of political marketing, The Selling of the President 1968, serves up any and all rumors and calumnies about Palin, the more salacious the better. His hope, he admits, is to cut short whatever is left of her political life, a spectacle he likens to "the cheap thrill of watching a clown in high heels on a flying trapeze."

As readers may recall, I'm no Palin fan myself, and I don't think there's anything wrong with unapologetic political bias, but all-consuming contempt rarely makes for good journalism. Despite his intensely close proximity to his subject—McGinniss famously rented the house adjacent to the Palin home while researching his book—he consistently fails to sift through competing versions of the same story for something approximating truth. For instance, McGinniss writes that in 1987, "whether in her professional capacity as a sports reporter or simply as a basketball groupie who'd begun to find black men attractive, Sarah linked up" with University of Michigan player Glen Rice during a college tournament in Anchorage. One unnamed "friend" (the book is jam-packed with them) says, "I can't say I know they had sex," while a different "friend" proclaims, "The thing that people remember is her freak-out, how completely crazy she got: I [expletive] a black man! She was just horrified." To his slight credit, McGinniss gave Rice a call to check these claims, but he fails to record a point-blank answer to the straightforward question of whether the player and Palin slept together. Instead, McGinniss asks, "So you never had the feeling she felt bad about having sex with a black guy?" to which Rice politely answers, "No, no, no, nothing like that. .?.?. I think the utmost of her."

More important, and beyond basic questions of facts, McGinniss fails to specify the significance of Palin's premarital sexual history (one wonders if and when male politicians will be subjected to the same examination).

He leaves no ambiguity, though, about the import of what he calls "the unanswered question" of Trig, Palin's son with Down syndrome, who was born in 2008. Untroubled by a lack of actual evidence, a small but unbowed band of Palin critics has long wondered aloud whether she is the boy's biological mother. Like all conspiracists, they insist that they are only asking questions that could be readily answered by nothing more out of the ordinary than a full data dump of Palin's obstetrical records. McGinniss approvingly quotes blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has insisted that "if Palin has lied about [giving birth to Trig], it's the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics."

What exactly McGinniss thinks is "unanswered" about Trig's birth is unclear, since he avers that, unlike Sullivan and other gynecological obsessives, he absolutely believes Palin is Trig's mother: "It seemed outlandish, even indecent, to suppose that Trig might not be Sarah's child. I did not, and I don't." And then he proceeds to devote more than a dozen pages to rehashing every conceivable theory—and some inconceivable ones—that she faked the birth.
McGinniss suggests that "it would be more than unreasonable to assume" that Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, "told her that the only thing that would make her a more appealing choice [as a running mate] would be if she could somehow give birth to a Down syndrome baby before the Republican convention in September. Yet . . . later Sarah announced that that's exactly what she expected to do."

McGinniss closes out his unmoored theorizing by asserting that "perhaps the most blistering assessment" of Palin is that, even if she is telling the truth about being Trig's mother, many people in her home town of Wasilla thought she was "eminently capable" of perpetuating such a sick ruse. Of course, that's not at all a blistering assessment of Palin, but it speaks volumes about McGinniss, who elsewhere chides the ex-governor for "spewing vitriolic condemnation of anyone who challenges her" and for having "no sense of proportion, no ability to modulate her response."

Rumors abound that Palin, whose spring bus tour fizzled every bit as much as Charlie Sheen's, will be announcing by month's end whether she intends to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. As her genuinely awful poll numbers suggest, Palin the office-seeker would face far bigger problems than the publication of The Rogue, which may have the perverse outcome of at least momentarily expanding her fan base.

Despite the buzz and hoopla she first generated when she stepped onto the national stage, Palin was a less-than-stellar vice presidential candidate, and in a YouTube world, Katie Couric interviews are forever. Her quick retreat from the Alaska governor's mansion, which she quit after serving barely half a term, was punctuated by the most bizarre and self-pitying exit speech since Richard Nixon promised in 1962, after losing the California governor's race, that we wouldn't have him to kick around anymore. Widely discussed lapses in judgment, including a push to fire her former brother-in-law, who was a state trooper, and her disturbingly narcissistic reaction to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona raise serious questions about her capacity to govern effectively. All these and more will weigh far heavier on her aspirations than anything McGinniss fantasized about while living next door to her in Wasilla.

That's exactly as it should be.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and a co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America. A version of this article originally appeared at The Washington Post.