I usually pass the trip back to my parents’ place with Japanese poetry or a book of crossword puzzles, but yesterday I did my patriotic duty and started reading Going Rogue. Finished late last night.
Verdict: It’s a political memoir.
Andrew Sullivan, whose mission in life is apparently to give continued currency to the old charge that homosexual men are freaked out by fecund, motherly women, has bizarrely characterized Palin this way:
And once again, for Ann [Althouse]’s sake, here are the lies I mean. Go through them. See if you think they are Clintonian type parsings of the truth or artful political hedging or anything like what we find in most pols. They really are not. They are functions of delusion and a worldview that wants things to be a certain way and cannot absorb that they are not. If you find the slightest error or come across a fact that we should add to this list of current lies, please let us know. We want this list to be as accurate as Palin is delusional. We want to create some template of easily-accessible reality as some kind of guard against the fantasies and fabulisms of our post-modern and fundamentalist age.
It’s extraordinary for Sullivan to be leveling that accusation, given his (ahem) fruitless obsession with the provenance of Trig Palin. (To my admittedly unkind amusement, Palin didn’t mention Sullivan’s name once in the book, IIRC, though she mentioned “The Atlantic” as the primary rumor mill related to her youngest child.) Talk about someone who wants something to be true when it plainly isn’t!
But it’s also extraordinary to make the Clinton comparison he explicitly makes. The Clintons, after all, gifted the world with quotables about “what the meaning of is is” and the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” among many, many other moments that seemed to be pretty clear manifestations of not having a clear grasp on hard, objective realities. And many of the Palin “lies” Sullivan lists are of the he-said, she-said sort that politicians are, in fact, notorious for telling:
“I didn’t know that photo shoot was going to be staged to make me look bad.”
“Policy X is polling badly? Well, gosh, I never supported it!”
“Policy Y has become a sleeper success? Well, gosh, I supported that from the very beginning, when it was principled and unpopular to do so!”
“Of course, I’m trying to get lobbyists away from government. I didn’t hire that old friend of the family because he was a lobbyist; I hired him because he’s an industry expert!”
If politicians stopped getting in front of cameras and saying that stuff, the nightly news could be shortened to five minutes.
I’m not trying to wave away Palin’s distortions—she really does seem to be misrepresenting some things, perhaps from wishful but sincere misremembering or perhaps from political calculation. But the idea that there’s something special about how she goes about it is ridiculous, and Sullivan has spent enough time around DC to know that.
Also, the literature major in me wonders just how the hell it became possible to be at once post-modern and fundamentalist, but that’s a topic for another day.
The literature major in me further wishes that more of Palin’s feistiness had made it into Going Rogue, which was written in exactly the same voice as Living History, Dreams from My Father, and every other memoir by an upwardly-mobile politician I’ve ever read. The tone is resolutely even-tempered—now relaxing into humor for a childhood anecdote, now pulling taut into high seriousness when weighty decisions must be made—but never working itself in a satisfying, personality-specific froth. There’s the telling story about little Sarah’s first attempt to fly, after which she picked herself up, skinned knees and all, and kept right on walking toward her destination. There’s the telling story about her refusal to sit out the high school state basketball championship game despite her broken ankle. There are several telling stories about how a child’s interruption or need for a diaper change brought Palin back to Earth when she was getting too worked up over some policy abstraction.
This is all according to recipe, and I don’t mention it to belittle Palin. Part of her image problem is that she’s seen as not having a clue about how to package herself articulately, and Going Rogue shows that she’s capable of doing exactly what an ambitious politician is supposed to do: get a good co-author and come up with a carefully formulated memoir that shows she has talent, self-reflection, and tenacity, implying along the way that becoming a political leader is pretty much her destiny. As a woman, Palin the would-be Political Force has an extra task: to prove that she’s a bitch but not a castrating bitch. She does a good job of it, casting her aggressive moves as “Mama grizzly” fierceness. She indicates that she’s equally at ease with a close group of girlfriends and with the men friends in her life. She talks about swooning (my word, not hers) for Todd’s macho-outlaw side.
She also engages in much more self-criticism about her behavior during the 2008 campaign than early reports suggested, which is reassuring but is also where things get complicated for the reader who’s sizing up her political potential. I realize that Alaska is in many ways a world unto itself, but it’s hard to believe that anyone who’d been playing hardball politics in a state with such huge energy and federal-funding issues could have been so naive about what was in store for her when she joined McCain as his running mate. In a way, her attitude is charming. Unlike the jumped-up Barack “I’m so totally shaking hands with an emperor—this is so cool!” Obama, Palin really doesn’t come off as seduced by the trappings of her new environment. (She’s seduced by Theory trousers, though, a weakness with which I can empathize.)
Nevertheless, the transition is seriously jarring. As governor of Alaska, she depicts herself as unafraid to shake up politics as usual even when told it could be political suicide. Then, in the blink of an eye, she’s meekly following the orders of louche, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, cynical campaign managers because she figures they know what they’re doing—and that’s when she’s not assuming that people acting all soulful must actually be sincere. How was it possible to be that unaware in 2008? A mere flip through Primary Colors at an airport bookstore sometime in the last fifteen years would have indicated that campaigns are governed by swarms of dictatorial consultants pushing their own agenda. And if Palin didn’t like the fictionalized format, she could always have paid attention to reports about the actual Clinton presidency, with its menagerie of pushy aides and hodge-podge of mixed messages. Or the Bush presidency. Or congress. Politics as an industry, like celebrity image-making and interior design, has been completely demystified over the last few decades. Palin says several times that she should have put her foot down about this or that disagreement with the campaign staff, but if there’s a passage in which she acknowledges that her overall instincts about the machine were bad, I missed it.
That doesn’t make her stupid, which she clearly is not. But it does keep alive the central question of whether she has the right kind of smarts to use her “rogue” instincts to change the way the federal government does business. She’s good at sparring with high-profile figures, which is a useful role in and of itself. But working politics involves outmaneuvering entrenched, behind-the-scenes string-pullers, and she doesn’t seem to know much about that. Perhaps she can learn. Perhaps she doesn’t need to because she really isn’t contemplating a presidential run, though that strikes me as highly unlikely. But I’m not sure she even knows she needs to. (Twice she’s reacted to being red-taped by resigning.)
And one final note: except for some non-specific references to Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” line, she seems to view geopolitics exclusively through the lenses of military readiness and fossil fuel access. Those are very important things, but they’re nowhere near a big-picture view.
So my mind isn’t changed. I doubt many others’ will be, either. But if you’re not already heartily sick of the whole Palin-related flapdoodle, you might enjoy the latest diavlog between Ann Althouse and Michelle Goldberg, to which Sullivan alludes in the passage quoted above. Althouse encounters heavy weather in just trying to talk Goldberg down from her apparent belief that Palin is the embodiment of evil.
Added after a sticky bun: BTW, if you need further evidence that the system really does need shaking up, here‘s how Eric spent his Saturday night.