21 December, 2009Issue 10.6North AmericaPolitics & Society

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Greenies, Grannies, Gunnies

Katie Wake

Going RogueSarah Palin
Going Rogue: An American Life
Harper Collins, 2009
432 Pages
ISBN 978-0061997877

An account of Sarah Palin’s book tour in a recent issue of the Observer characterised Palin’s world as one in which “America is succumbing to the foreign ideology of socialism, and the lifeblood of the free market is being squeezed by Big Government. The threat of ‘death panels’ haunts the elderly. It is a nation of whispered conspiracies that Obama wants to take away people’s guns, and where communist appointees plot secret internment camps and the forced indoctrination of innocent American youth.” The author of that article evidently hadn’t read Going Rogue.

Sarah Palin’s autobiography seeks to portray the life of an everyday American on the Last Frontier. The social conservatism, creationism, and evangelicalism that make Palin disconcerting to so many in the media are marginalised; pernicious views on social policy are omitted altogether. In Going Rogue, Palin’s opposition is largely tacit. But that does not necessarily make it any less potent. “I support the traditional definition of marriage”, Palin demurs, avoiding overt affirmation of her attitude to gay rights. Similarly, she presents pro-life views without saying what she’d do to the abortion laws. Only on the origin of species is she briefly explicit in her disbelief that “thinking, loving [human] beings originated from fish that sprouted legs … Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys.” She is “pro-America”, clear that the United States is “the greatest country on Earth” but unclear as to what she’s against, and quiet about communism and radical Islam.

The brilliance of Palin’s autobiography is that it states in straightforward terms why being anything other than a “Commonsense Conservative” is bonkers. This reviewer was seduced. I too enjoy “kicking ass”. I too love cookies. Who doesn’t like corruption-busting, small businesses, and self-parody? And why shouldn’t she and her native Alaskan husband Todd name their children after athletics (Track), a brand of aeroplane (Piper), or an Alaskan bay (Bristol)? Why shouldn’t she bring her fifth child, newborn baby Trig who has Down’s Syndrome, onto the campaign stage as Obama often did with his two daughters? As Palin reasonably argues, it was a catch-22: showing off Trig to the world subjected her to the accusation of exploiting her child; keeping him out of sight would have left her open to the charge of being ashamed of him.

Throughout Going Rogue, Palin harnesses motherhood, that universally-recognised brand, to reclaim Middle America. Painting herself as a maverick (hence the title), Palin takes pains to demonstrate that, as governor of Alaska, she was often more popular with Democrats than Republicans. She catalogues her efforts to break the monopoly of the “big three” oil companies over Alaskan reserves and to oversee the indictments of the predominantly Republican “Corrupt Bastards Club” in the state government.

Later, Palin finds common ground with Hillary Clinton, offering a mea culpa for her criticism in February 2008 of the Democratic presidential candidate’s whine about her media treatment: “I should have walked a mile in her shoes”, Palin writes, “In fact, I should have applauded her because she was right.” She quotes Martin Luther King. She hijacks Obama’s bandwagon. Of her gubernatorial campaign run by Kris Perry, a fellow “kick-butt, tell-it-like-it-is soccer mom”, Palin jokes, “Hey! We were change when change wasn’t cool!”

Going Rogue offers a corrective to the predominating narrative that Palin became a liability for John McCain, who had failed to vet his vice presidential choice. The book is her opportunity to swat away the blame for the Republicans’ electoral defeat by laying responsibility for her poor image squarely on the shoulders of a paranoid campaign team that gagged her. She names and shames while proclaiming unwavering loyalty to McCain, thereby abnegating responsibility for failure without appearing vindictive. Chief strategist Steve Schmidt, memorably described as a man “who wore sunglasses atop his bald head in the middle of the night”, was “slow to turn the campaign’s ship into the wind”, focusing for too long on the war in Iraq when the country’s attention had shifted to the economy. Nicolle Wallace, the campaign’s communications aide, is found guilty of orchestrating Palin’s disastrous first interview with CBS journalist Katie Couric. Palin claims Wallace said “[Katie] wants you to like her” and that she was hardly briefed on the assumption that this was to be “a pretty mellow interview, short and sweet, about balancing motherhood and my life as a governor.” In the event, Palin admits she bombed when put on the spot about foreign policy and the newspapers she reads.

Members of the McCain campaign have responded angrily to some of the charges made in Going Rogue. Steve Schmidt described Palin’s claims about him as “all fiction”, while Nicolle Wallace called Going Rogue “a book based on fabrications” betraying “a bizarre fixation on things that everyone else has moved on from.” Yet Americans have not moved on from Palin’s performance during the campaign. Nor will they as she revamps her political image, quite possibly for the 2012 election. The revisionist account of the campaign offered by Going Rogue enables Palin to live down some of her gaffes with good humour. The Katie Couric interview was quickly picked up by Tina Fey, who proceeded to satirise Palin on Saturday Night Live. When recalling the campaign’s offer of a voice coach, Palin jokes, “I thought of all the money Tina Fey was making imitating me; I didn’t want to screw up her SNL thing by changing up on her midstream. I’m all about job security for the American worker.”

It is unsurprising that Palin comes off well in Going Rogue, a book that, like so many political memoirs, was ghost-written and sanitised. Most importantly, she whitewashes contemporary America, enabling her to dodge those bullets which otherwise cause her to bleed the Republican red of the religious right. This is the woman who, over a year after Obama’s election, still believes Americans are right to be concerned about the birth of the half-African president and his eligibility to be president; the woman who just two weeks ago described climate change as resulting from “natural, cyclical environmental trends”—a fact which she believes should preclude action in Copenhagen to curb human-generated carbon omissions; the alarmist who sees universal healthcare in the United States as waging an evil war against “my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome [who] will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’,whether they are worthy of health care.”

While these divisive views are downplayed, the most notable absence is that of the American poor, who are mentioned just once in relation to social programmes that Palin claims have become “unsustainable financial liabilities for all of us.” Race and ethnicity are similarly effaced. Palin’s wholesome, monolithic portrait of America bears little relation to a country where a fifth of children live in poverty, half of whom are African-American.

Going Rogue smoothes the fault lines of society by pretending that misery and identity politics do not exist. Gender, race, and religion are subsumed beneath the banner of patriotism. The book is dedicated to “all Patriots who share my love of the United States of America. And particularly to our women and men in uniform, past and present – God bless the fight for freedom.” Yet foreign policy is also absent. Short of supporting “our allies in Israel”, Palin’s position on policy in the Middle East is unclear. Islam doesn’t merit a mention. Perhaps most worryingly for someone for high office, she admits on Iraq, “I knew the history of the conflict to the extent that most Americans did.”

In the final chapter, Palin occasionally lapses into the more familiar conspiracy mentality. By that time, though, most readers will have been enchanted by this funny, gracious, and self-deprecating account of a woman’s hard work to break through glass ceilings, interjected with fond family anecdotes. Sneering coverage of Palin, such as the inference that she’s never read a newspaper in her life—studiously refuted by a blurred and otherwise unremarkable photograph of Palin reading—only boost Palin’s ability to depict herself as a victim of hostile media. Cheap shots painting her as ignorant and uncosmopolitan enable Palin to position herself as a populist leader of a mythical silent majority.

In its own way Going Rogue is a masterpiece of the autobiographical art: it would appear to have successfully captured in each ghost-written clause the very essence of Sarah Palin. Whilst she chides the media for obsessing over her Alaska “hockey mom” image when she would rather be discussing “free market principles and military strength”, Palin here contradicts herself at book length. There is no substantive policy in Going Rogue, only a beguilingly selective personal narrative and easily digestible homilies designed to further her already remarkable career.

Katie Wake received an MSt in American History from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. She lives in London and is a civil servant.