In a recent sit-down with television host Barbara Walters, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was asked to grade the performance of President Obama. Four out of ten was the best that she felt he deserved. An old teacher myself, I picked up a copy of Mrs Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, with an eye to giving it a grade as well. After reading the book’s 400 pages the fairest grade that I can give it is an “I” for incomplete. This grade arises from the gap between what Going Rogue is designed to do and what it does not do.
Going Rogue is a positioning piece. Like Senator John McCain’s 2002 Worth The Fighting For or President Obama’s 2008 The Audacity of Hope, Going Rogue’s two-fold mission is to introduce us to the real Sarah Palin, and give her a platform to discuss her stance on issues (such as energy and taxes) that are essential for anyone who wants, as she appears to, someday run for president. Going Rogue executes both of these missions with gusto. Within the first five pages, it presents us with the credentials of a home-grown conservative who is pro-life (her daughter Piper’s image appears on Alaska Right to Life’s material), and a Ronald Reaganite standing ready to take on the forces of “Big Oil”, “fat-cat deals”, and the ubiquitous “politics as usual”. It is clear that Sarah Palin means business.
The book does a good job of giving us a three-dimensional picture of the former governor, complete with her strengths and weaknesses. Beginning at the beginning, we follow Sarah’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, as they trek north in 1964 from Idaho to frontier Alaska, a wild state just five years old. Sarah and her three siblings are raised in Skagway, and later Wasilla, on lots of hard work, family love and high school sports. Todd Palin, the love of Sarah’s life and future “First Dude” of Alaska, endears himself to the Heaths and us with his love of children and iron work ethic. After Sarah graduates from the University of Idaho, she returns to Alaska where she and Todd marry, then set out with little more than the love between them and a determination to build a life together. Stories of the birth of their first child (Track CJ Palin, so named because he was born during spring track season) and her first miscarriage are genuinely emotional and engaging. Many will relate to her triumphs and tribulations.
Unfortunately, sprinkled throughout Palin’s “this is my life” narrative is a nagging voice of regional and class antagonism. We are often reminded that those of us unlucky enough to live anywhere but Alaska are considered “Outsiders” by the residents of the land of the midnight sun. Much lauded are the virtues of hunting and snowmachine racing (not snowmobile, an Outsider’s term), all served up with plenty of colloquialisms such as “oh man” and “good grief”. While this “I write like I talk” approach will make the book accessible to the masses, it is often at cross purposes with the mission of portraying the former governor as a serious statesman.
Yes, we see the genuine Palin article and not the Tina Fey look-alike of Saturday Night Live. But how much time do we want to spend with a Governor who routinely derides her opponents? For example, those in the Alaska state legislature who opposed her are dismissed as children in “need of adult supervision”. As governor she was ready, she tells us, to take on Alaska’s politicians and special interests because of her “training grounds as a mom”. While such statements fit well in a chapter titled “Kitchen-Table Politics”, the overall effect is divisive and unflattering to her image. Palin rightly notes that women in politics have had to battle stereotypes used to belittle them. It is surprising, then, that she often falls into the stereotype of the complaining women.
Going Rogue’s greatest strength is found in its potential as a political work. It is a good policy book. Starting from her time as a Wasilla council member and mayor of the same city, through her chairmanship of Alaska’s Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, to her two years as Alaska’s Governor, she discusses in detail her approach to solving the many problems facing America. However, as with her personal narrative, the potential for Going Rogue to be a great (not just good) policy piece is undermined by her constant use of sound bite phrases like “putting government on the side of the people”, “not business as usual”, or “commonsense conservatism”. It is not until page 384 that the governor gets around to even asking question of “what does it mean to be a Commonsense Conservative?” (sic).
Palin’s vision for America is big and ambitious, one in which taxes are much lower and government is much smaller. Unfortunately, the buy-in to this vision is undercut by what I can only describe as naïveté about who are the good guys and the bad guys of the American landscape. The villains are, in Going Rogue’s sometimes snarky world view, the cultural and political elites, those who went to Ivy League schools and are “out of touch” with “real Americans”. CBS’s Katie Couric and anyone attached to President Obama’s administration rank high on the list.
But what color hat, black or white, should be placed on President George W. Bush’s head? Palin praises him for keeping America safe during the eight years following 9/11, but does not mention his Ivy League roots as a Yale graduate who has never really had to look for work in his life. And what of the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly who holds a master’s degree from Harvard? Palin tells us how, during the McCain/Palin 2008 presidential campaign, she tried unsuccessfully to secretly contact him and get on his show, The O’Reilly Factor.
Even when discussing her political hero Ronald Reagan, Palin sounds uninformed. She praises Reagan’s seemingly natural ability to speak directly to the people, but not once does she even hint that she is aware of the nearly four decades of political yeoman’s work experience (including two unsuccessful tries as a presidential candidate) logged by the great statesman. In small town American fashion, drawing on her high school basketball years, Palin writes that “hard work and passion matter most of all” in life. True, hard work matters, but there is much to be said for experience, training and savvy, especially in politics, a sport in which the only holds barred are the ones you cannot get away with.
While Palin’s discussion of policy is the book’s greatest asset, her behind-the-scenes treatment of the 2008 presidential campaign is its greatest liability. Although I laughed at the description of Senator Joe Biden’s Jane Fonda-like stretch-a-thon just before the VP debate, Palin spends too much time telling us how much of what went wrong with the campaign — from expensive wardrobes (complete with $70 pantyhose that she did not wear to $350 shoes from Neiman Marcus) to statements to the press — was not her fault. I cringed through this portion of the book, wishing that someone had taken her aside and explained that, even if inquiring minds want to know all that went on behind closed doors, you should never, ever, commit the political sin of naming names and dishing details.
Yes, the campaign was handled badly and mistakes were made; that was clear to most Americans well before the wee hours of November 5. However, blaming campaign manager Steve “The bullet” Schmidt and/or the faceless “campaign headquarters” for so many missteps and opportunities is great for moving books but not for political careers. Did Nixon write a tell-all book following the suspect 1960 loss to the Kennedy-Daly-LBJ cabal? What of Senator John Kerry, whose campaign conceded the 2004 presidential race even before all the votes were counted? The finger pointing and blaming in Going Rogue is unproductive and unpresidential.
Which brings us full circle. Though Going Rogue is a commercial success, it is written as a political work and needs to deliver politically for the ex-governor. Can it do it? I am not sure. Does Palin want to run for President in 2012? It seems likely. To quote an Alaskan expression that she uses, “unless you are the lead sled dog, the view doesn’t change”.
But her book’s gossipy tone leaves us wondering what sort of contender she wants to be. Is she aiming to lead a new populist revolt, ride cross-country and beat down the forces of Big Government and the other boogie men that live under Ron Paul’s bed? Or is she aiming for a future in the GOP?
In the closing pages of Going Rogue she seems to declare her loyalty to the Grand Old Party by writing that “the planks in that party’s platform are stronger than any other upon which to build Alaska and America”. OK, Mrs Palin, you now have the public’s attention and a fair amount of their money. I would suggest that you quickly decide which shoe you want to drop next.
Jeff Gardner is a radio journalist living in Onalaska, Wisconsin. He is the CEO and co-founder of Catholic Media International.