When Sarah Palin was announced to the world as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in summer 2008, she was almost completely unknown outside Alaska. She had made a few feisty appearances on television interview programs as a booster for Alaska and its energy resources since becoming governor in 2006. In October 2007, Newsweek had favorably profiled Palin and a Democratic woman governor, Janet Napolitano, as two western politicians who were “making their mark with a pragmatic, post-partisan approach to solving problems” — which makes her sound a little like a premature Barack Obama. She had hosted receptions for the editors of both National Review and The Weekly Standard when their respective cruises docked in Juneau. They were impressed by her lively charm and apparent soundness, but not to the extent of predicting that she would be an early contender for national office. Insofar as Sarah Palin had a national political reputation in mid-2008, it was that — thank you, Newsweek — of a moderate Republican reformer. But it was a very small reputation indeed. Most pundits and activists had little idea who she was, let alone what she was.
That changed within hours, even minutes, of her being selected as VP candidate. Suddenly everyone had not just a definite opinion about her, but a passionate and ineradicable feeling about her.
Many, perhaps most, ordinary Americans (i.e., those who are neither professional politicians nor professional journalists nor self-consciously professional in other fields) seemed to take an instant liking to her. She attracted immense crowds to her rallies with McCain. She even eclipsed McCain on these occasions — a turnabout that, to his credit, McCain apparently enjoyed. Initial polls suggested that she had struck a chord with many voters. According to public-opinion watcher Karlyn Bowman, she had gone over big with that third of American voters who claim “some college” on their CVs. Their instinctive affection was confirmed by her fine acceptance speech — possibly the most successful introduction of any American politician since Reagan’s Goldwater ad in 1964 — at the GOP convention.
All of this translated into an immediate surge of popularity for the Republican ticket. More interesting than its impact, however, was the nature of this response to Palin. Almost none of these new supporters were enthused by her political record; they had only the vaguest idea of what it was. So they must have been sparked up by the woman herself. They intuited something about her. But what? It seems to have been that she was “one of us.” In that case, however, who were “we”?
That question was answered quickly, but not by the Democrats. Obama very shrewdly gave Palin a chivalrous welcome to national politics. It was the media and the wider academic-media-foundation complex that now sprang to the attack — only a little more slowly than Middle America had rallied to Palin’s standard. Pundits, editors, anchormen, columnists, social critics, literary post-modernists, feminist theorists, post-structuralists — “Academics, actors who lecture / Apostles of architecture / Ancient-gods-of-the-abdomen men / Angst-pushers, adherents of Zen . . .” as Kingsley Amis listed the licensed rebels of an earlier age in his poem “After Goliath” — all discovered overnight that they despised Palin and all that she stood for even if they had only the vaguest idea of what she stood for. They too had intuited something about her: that she was not “one of us.” Worse, as the cheers of the polyester crowds established, she was one of them.
The outpouring of bile and contempt for Palin from the academic-media-foundation complex over the next few months (and that continues to the present day) forms the subject of Matthew Continetti’s forceful little book. His thesis is effectively summarized on page three, where he lists the sophisticated witticisms to which the intellectual elite has subjected Palin:
She has been called a “freak show,” a “joke,” an “extreme liability,” a “turncoat b*tch,” an “insult,” a “fire-breather,” “xenophobic,” a “sitcom” of a presidential choice, a “disaster movie,” a “shallow” person, “chirpy,” a “provincial,” a “disgrace to women” who was “as fake as they come,” [and so on for a couple hundred more words, culminating in] an “[expletive deleted] psychopath,” a “religious fanatic and a proud boastful ignoramus,” “political slime,” a “mean brain-dead rat,” a “bad mother” who “often seems proud of what she does not know,” the “Carmela Soprano of the GOP,” a “Drama Queen,” a “Republican blow-up doll” who “ideologically” is “their hardcore pornographic centerfold spread,” an “opportunist anti-female,” a “true Stepford candidate, a cyborg,” a “quitter,” and . . . a “bon-bon.”
Except for “bon-bon” (which really describes an aspect of Palin’s personality), that long list is a tribute to the unhinging of an entire social class. Nothing in it bears any relationship to the real Sarah Palin or her actions in private or public. The constant striving after effect is wearisome. The abusive descriptions cancel one another out — the Palin they indict is a deeply religious whore, a bullying bimbo, a ruthless naïf, one of those dark blondes. There is not a single aphorism about Palin in that list (or elsewhere) that captures and destroys her through sharp and witty observation. These philippics are spluttered forth not to describe, analyze, refute, or even ridicule coolly, but instead to express a rage that is all the more painful for being incoherent.
In short, “bon-bon” really was the best that they could do.
That list only begins Mr. Continetti’s explorations. A former NR intern, he is a graduate of the institutional network established by Irving Kristol, M. Stanton Evans, Tom Phillips, and others in separate endeavors over the last 30 years to encourage young conservatives to enter journalism. He and other graduates now staff Fox News, Regnery Books, and the Examiner newspapers, and they have sharpened the political reporting of conservative opinion journals. Continetti likes Palin and thinks she has a future as a major national figure. He also points out certain missteps in her record: Her “post-partisan” independence in Alaska, for instance, was built in part on forging alliances with Democrats and turning on Republican patrons for fairly minor infractions. (Needless to say, the Democrats forgot her alliance with them once she was nominated, while the Republicans remembered what they felt were her betrayals.) His portrait of Palin is, well, balanced in her favor. But she is the object rather than the subject of his book. Primarily he employs the orthodox techniques of reporting — in this case, checking allegations against Palin with multiple sources or with documentary evidence — against the “elite media” and their favored experts.
The results are devastating. Media organizations broke their own rules on covering the families of candidates. Reporters passed on absurd rumors launched on the Internet. Columnists had hysterical fits. Here, for instance, is Naomi Wolf in The Huffington Post: “Under the coming Palin-Rove police state, you will witness the plans now under way to bring Iraqi troops to patrol the streets of our nation.” And even this outburst seemed relatively calm in comparison with Andrew Sullivan’s constant demands that the McCain campaign provide evidence to disprove the Internet rumor that Sarah Palin was passing off her daughter’s baby as her own child. How could a writer as undeniably intelligent as Sullivan not grasp that evidence was needed to justify rather than to disprove such a very unlikely scandal? Well, according to his Atlantic colleague Megan McArdle, the reason is a medical condition afflicting almost all the media elite: Palinoia.
Most news coverage reflected this grave condition. By any reasonable expectation this barrage should have destroyed Palin. It certainly reduced her standing with some voters, notably independents, and probably those in all partisan groups who still trust the impartiality of the elite media. But it failed to crush Palin: She finished the 2008 campaign in fighting style, and polls today show that she has the approval and support of about 70 percent of Republicans. Given the recent embarrassments of Mike Huckabee, she is probably now the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, admittedly for a dim and distant 2012. This is a remarkable triumph over her press coverage.
To be sure, she has high “negatives” too. Americans seem to be divided into two groups: those who are misinformed about Sarah Palin — fully misinformed, one might say — and despise her; and those who are uninformed about her and adore her. Maybe it is time to become informed about Sarah Palin.
How well does Going Rogue inform us about its central character? Palin had the assistance of a gifted “ghost” in Lynn Vincent to put her words down on paper. But as an occasional ghostly presence myself, I judge either that Palin was present throughout the writing, or that her ghost has become very close to her, or perhaps both. The book sounds throughout just like Sarah Palin. Also, it’s an autobiography and every autobiography should bear the subtitle “Not the whole truth.” Yet it seems to be about as honest as an autobiography can be. I can write this confidently because, as Mark Steyn has pointed out, the Associated Press assigned no fewer than eleven Mary-Jo Factcheckers to make sure that the Alaska governor was not telling fibs. They discovered six utter trivialities, including that she has more “ambition” than she lets on. (So that’s how she became a candidate for national office. Whodathunkit?) Finally, it’s a very readable and entertaining book — far more so, I think, than most political memoirs.
It falls naturally into three neat sections — Palin’s early life, marriage, and family; her political career in Alaska; and her 2008 vice-presidential campaign — with a codicil reflecting on her post-campaign life and resignation as governor.
Her account of her Alaskan political career will probably interest readers the least. Most of the political issues and figures mentioned are little known outside Alaska. Naturally enough, her opponents don’t get their say in her autobiography — so it lacks the drama of cut-and-thrust. And it is written, somewhat romantically, as a thrilling “Jill the Giant Killer” tale of how Palin took on the GOP–and–Big Oil establishment on ethical issues and won. Still, these chapters are worth reading carefully. Between the lines they tell of how a talented outsider could ride to power by first working with insiders and then exploiting their ethical lapses to replace them. The insiders themselves made this easy for her by underestimating her political skill and judgment. She advanced by resigning, triangulated between her own party and the opposition, and made modest plans for an exit strategy by boosting Alaska to the rest of the U.S. All these worked well for her — though her triangulation created problems in the campaign and her latest resignation is controversial. This is not such a nice story as “Jill the Giant Killer,” but it is a revealing one. There was a cool and skilled ruthlessness and determination underneath Palin’s cheery boosterism that future opponents would do well to remember.
Palin’s personal life was perhaps the main reason she was hated. On one hand, she exemplified everything that feminists had always insisted was true: She combined a successful career with a full and loving family life. On the other, she held all the wrong right opinions on the nuclear family, gay marriage, and, above all, abortion. Worse, she exemplified these opinions, too, by being happily (even lustfully) married, having a large family, and giving birth knowingly to a Down Syndrome child. Still worse, she was neither a religious bigot nor an intolerant homophobe, as progressive stereotyping demanded.
Many of the contradictory attacks on her arise precisely from anger at her combining all these things in a perversely normal life. Since she undermined the stereotyping of the cultural Left, she had to be shown to be (a) a whore, or (b) a bigot, or (c) a redneck mother from the Jerry Springer show, or (d) a politician so ambitious that she would pretend to be her grandson’s mother, or (e) all of the above. Yet, most outrageous of all, she soared smiling above these calumnies.
Her book establishes why she can smile — but also why she is not all smiles. To begin with she has been blessed with a genuinely happy life, marred so far by very few tragedies. She was cursed by neither wealth nor real poverty. Her parents and family were close and supportive. She fell in love early and successfully. Her husband is one of those irritating guys that other men envy for their strength and courage and that women — well, see below. Their children have largely turned out well. They married somewhat poor, had some hard times, worked hard, succeeded in different occupations, and have now achieved financial independence and some fame.
This is a conventional American middle-class story of success built on solid foundations in a fundamentally open and decent society. Palin explains her early Republicanism at one point by saying that she felt Ronald Reagan was “one of us.” He was a wealthy Hollywood star, but he incarnated small-town America. Many middle-class Americans think exactly the same about Palin.
George Orwell once remarked, however, that every life seen from the inside is a series of defeats. That goes too far; still, seen from the inside — and we have that experience in Going Rogue — Sarah Palin’s life is a series of moral challenges. She admits that the Inner Palin does not always rise to them as easily as the External Sarah suggests. Most notably, she did not initially treat the news of her Down Syndrome child equably. She was frankly terrified. For a moment she considered quietly disappearing out of state for an abortion that no one would ever know about. She rejected the temptation, but it required some effort. In an almost despairing struggle to accept her baby, she turned at one point to her husband, Todd, and asked: “Why us?”
“Why not us?” he replied. He promptly set about talking to friends with “special needs” children to answer such practical questions as “Can they play baseball?” That will tell any woman all she needs to know about Todd Palin — the most important thing being the answer to the question “Can he be relied on?” It also helps to explain why his wife has been able to live out the feminist ideal of having it all.
Is this a book that settles scores from the McCain campaign? Certainly. But then there were ample scores to be settled. Palin chivalrously exempts McCain from any criticism of the treatment she received from the campaign staff appointed to protect him from her. In brief, though, they treated her — to borrow a famous British political line — as “a bloody legal necessity.” Some of the staff — not all; Palin praises speechwriter Matt Scully to the heavens — started to view her as an intolerant scold. So they set about treating her as a rebellious ventriloquist’s dummy who had to be kept away from all human contact except when allowed to speak from a script purged of any personal content. She was even prevented from delivering a concession speech and dressed down for suggesting such a novelty.
How accurate is all this? Well, I wasn’t there. Maybe Palin exaggerates or distorts particular events. But the general picture rings horribly true. Political consultants and campaign experts on the right are best described by the old Soviet term of “candidate-members” of the political establishment. They are anxious to curry favor with its full members and have swallowed a diluted version of its doctrines. How else are we to explain Nicolle Wallace’s advice that Katie Couric was to be preferred over Fox News as the conductor of a major Palin interview? It would be a libel on her professionalism to suggest that Ms. Wallace thought Couric likely to be a friendlier interlocutor. She seems merely to have felt more comfortable with Couric (a personal friend) than with the natural media allies of the McCain campaign. Something similar may explain the continuing phenomenon of anti-Palin conservatives. They have fought so many dinner-party battles over everything from the Cold War to marginal tax rates that . . . must they really annoy their next-door neighbors, saddle up one more time, and set forth to defend someone whom they would never have met except for the unfortunate legal necessity that she was a national GOP candidate?
Unless this kind of class sympathy is taken into account, the whole thing is a mystery. Still, as told by the unfortunate legal necessity, it makes for very entertaining reading. The campaign chapters are the best in the book — vivid, informative, full of personal color and slightly bitchy gossip. And they raise again the question: Was everyone on the campaign bus “one of us”? Or were some of them “one of them”? And, as the late Samuel Huntington memorably asked in the title of his final and perhaps most important book: “Who are we?”
That is, of course, the question that will determine Palin’s future.