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Sarah Palin: Myth And Mythmaking

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"Sarah and Her Tribe", Jonathan Raban
New York Review of Books, Forthcoming in the January 14, 2010 issue

"Going Rogue: An American Life"
by Sarah Palin
Harper, 413 pp., $28.99

"Sarah from Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar"
by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe
PublicAffairs, 301 pp., $26.95

When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

There's a moment of near rapture in the video of Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul on September 3, 2008. It begins in the eleventh minute, after her Westbrook Pegler quote ("We grow good people in our small towns...") and before her "lipstick" quip about hockey moms and pit bulls. Following a nervous start, she is now entirely at ease in front of the biggest crowd of her speaking life, and riding high on the chants of "Sarah!" "USA!" and "Drill, baby, drill!" Her smile looks ecstatic, as she allows herself a snuffling chuckle at the acerbity of her own wit, then shows off her repertoire of little nods of self-approbation, complicit left-eye winks from behind her glasses, and lips smugly pursed to signal that an unanswerable point has just been made. When the camera cuts to the crowd, face after face is a joyful mirror image of Palin's own, as if transfigured by a shared triumph. (Striking exceptions among the faces include those of Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, and Cindy McCain, all of whom register a cautious agnosticism in the presence of the epiphany.) In "Going Rogue", Palin and her ghost, Lynn Vincent, write of the speech, "By God's grace I was having a ball."

In contrast to Barack Obama, who maintained a detachment verging on aloofness from his most fervent and adulatory campaign crowds, Palin achieved an extraordinary at-oneness with her supporters; not least, perhaps, because she appeared to be such an enthralled fan of her own performances. She managed to endow her threadbare homilies about free enterprise, tax cuts, patriotism, and the evil of government spending with the novelty of her own sudden, fresh-faced presence on the national scene. Most of all, she seemed to embody in her person and her life story the accumulated grievances of the heartland and the West: the resentment in the countryside and the exurbs against the liberal tyranny of the big cities; the antipathy of those she calls "real Americans" toward the "East Coast elites"; the surly resistance of states' rights proponents to "the Feds."

Her nasal voice, pitched in the upper register, with the upsy-downsy, singsong delivery of a kindergarten teacher, became, rather improbably, a great electoral asset. Her diction and accent were shaped more by class than region, and spiced with faux-genteel cuss words like "dang," "heck," "darn," "geez," "bullcrap," and "bass-ackwards." It was a voice unspoiled by overmuch formal education and boldly unafraid of truisms and clichés; a perfect foil for Obama's polished law-school eloquence. In the narrative of the McCain campaign, she was the exemplary real American, Obama the phony one, and when people are now interviewed in the interminable lines for her book signings, by far their most common remark about her is "She's real."

Alaska, the particular reality from which Palin hails, is so little known by most Americans that she was able to freely mythicize her state as the utopian last refuge of the "hard work ethic," "unpretentious living," and proud self-sufficiency. Her anti-tax rhetoric (private citizens spend their money more wisely than government does) and disdain for "federal dollars" were unembarrassed by the fact that Alaska tops the tables of both per capita federal expenditure, on which one in three jobs in the state depends, and congressional earmarks, or "pork." So, too, she mythicized the straggling eyesore of Wasilla (described by a current councilwoman there as "like a big ugly strip mall from one end to the other") as the bucolic small town of sentimental American memory. Listening to Palin talk about it, one was invited to inspect not the string of oceanic parking lots attached to Fred Meyer, Lowe's, Target, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, or the town's reputation among state troopers as the crystal meth capital of Alaska, but, rather, the imaginary barber shop, drugstore soda fountain, antique church, and raised boardwalks, seen in the rosy light of an Indian summer evening.

To audiences struggling to keep their heads above water through a deepening recession, her Alaska de l'esprit, this land of boundless natural resources and minimal government and taxation, "microcosm of America" as she liked to say, sounded a fine place to which to escape from the exigencies of living in the real United States in 2008. When talking to people who talk and think as she does, Palin has an exceptionally canny political instinct for connecting with her own kind. She turned her campaign rallies into giant family picnics, at which the assembled thousands, striking for their physical resemblance to one another, basked in having their own family catchphrases, like "politics as usual," returned to them in magnified form by the monitor screens and loudspeakers. Safely within her tribe, Palin speaks fluently, with warmth and humor,[1] though grammatical logic tends to evade her; it's away from the tribe, talking, for instance, with Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, and other members of what she now calls the "lamestream media," that she dissolves into flustered babble.

"Going Rogue" is about further cementing her connection to the tribe. A book that begins with Governor Palin visiting the Alaska Right to Life booth at the 2008 state fair ("With their passion and sincerity, the ladies typified the difference between principles and politics") clearly isn't aiming to pander to liberal trespassers among its readers. Her encounter with the sincere and passionate ladies, and the jangling false antithesis between "principles" and "politics," which goes little further than the fact that both words begin with a p, sound the opening notes of Palin's dominant theme, as she markets her brand of "Commonsense Conservatism."

Commonsense Conservatism hinges on the not-so-tacit assumption that the average, hardworking churchgoer, like the ladies at the booth, equipped with the fundamental, God-given ability to distinguish right from wrong, is in a better position to judge, on "principle," the merits of an economic policy or the deployment of American troops abroad than "the 'experts'"--a term here unfailingly placed between derisive quotation marks. Desiccated expertise, of the kind possessed by economists, environmental scientists, and overinformed reporters from the lamestream media, clouds good judgment; Palin's life, by contrast, is presented as one of passion, sincerity, and principle. Going Rogue, in other words, is a four-hundred-page paean to virtuous ignorance.

Much of the book is given over to establishing what Palin shares in common with the "patriotic, good-hearted Americans" who've been crowding the malls to await the arrival of her tour bus, so one learns more than one would ideally like about her habits as a consumer. Her preferred fashion label is Carharrt, the manufacturer of outdoor work clothes; she says she shops at Costco and clips coupons. "We buy diapers in bulk and generic peanut butter." She dislikes "fancy food," "fancy clothes," and "fancy jewelry." When she and Todd Palin "eloped" to Palmer (which is all of eleven miles distant from Wasilla) to get married, they celebrated with a wedding dinner at "the Wendy's drive-thru." Later, they "bought a $35 wedding band from a street vendor in Hawaii, and it still works!" "My family is frugal," Palin remarks, rather unnecessarily.

Meat is what she likes to consume most, though not rare, or even pink, meat (which might strike a too-fancy note with her target demographic):

I love meat. I eat pork chops, thick bacon burgers, and the seared fatty edges of a medium-well-done steak. But I especially love moose and caribou. I always remind people from outside our state that there's plenty of room for all Alaska's animals--right next to the mashed potatoes....

People outside Alaska are often clueless about our reliance on natural food sources. (You know you're an Alaskan when at least twice a year your kitchen doubles as a meat-processing plant.)

Her sarcophagous appetite for flesh and slaughter goes hand in hand with her scorn for vegetarians--more, it seems, because of their presumed social class and education than because of the food on their plates. An old enemy in Wasilla (the book is full of them) is described as a "Birkenstock-and-granola Berkeley grad who wore her gray hair long and flowing and with a flower behind one ear." Palin's speechwriter on the McCain campaign, Matthew Scully, is also the author of an admired book on animal rights, Dominion. He becomes "a bunny-hugging vegan and gentle, green soul who I think would throw himself in the path of a semitruck to save a squirrel" and "the classic absentminded professor." Though his speeches were "like poetry," it required a real, meat-eating, normal American to give them substance.

In a welcome moment of shading and contrast, Palin the consumer finds space to mention the fact that she drives a black VW Jetta, which seems an odd choice of car for an all-American patriot, since US Jettas are imported from the Volkswagen assembly plant in Puebla, Mexico.

"Everything I ever needed to know, I learned on the basketball court," Palin says, reprising a sentence she first wrote in an Op-Ed piece for the Anchorage Daily News in April 2004, before ghostwriters entered her life. "I loved competition." On one hand, she paints herself as the average mom, a "Main Streeter," as she described herself in her campaign debate with Joe Biden; on the other, driven by her "gift" of "determination and resolve," she's a born winner, but only of reassuringly average trophies, which are lined up in the book as on the family mantelpiece.

There's the medal she won as a ten-year-old from the VFW for her poem about Betsy Ross (alas, not reprinted here), along with the sashes from the Miss Wasilla contest ("I won every segment of the competition, even Miss Congeniality") and her place as second runner-up to Miss Alaska in the state final. "Every year in school I ran for something in student government--vice president, treasurer, something." Her many exploits in track and field culminate in the high school basketball championship game between the Wasilla Warriors, captained by Palin with a badly sprained ankle, and the Service Cougars of Anchorage. "I'd never worked so hard for anything in my life, because I'd never wanted anything so badly." Small town played big city. Small town won. "That victory changed my life."

Her father, Chuck Heath, hunter, taxidermist, elementary school science teacher, and sports coach, loomed imposingly over her childhood, and clearly inspired her egregious appetite to compete in, and to win, every contest that came her way:

My siblings all won many more sports awards than I, as I wasn't equipped with anything close to their natural talent. But I once overheard Dad say to another coach that he'd never had an athlete work harder. Overhearing those words was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

No wonder she found political elections irresistible, and basketball, with its multiple opportunities for tactical cheating, in the way of well-executed pushes, jersey-pullings, bumpings, and "flops," supplies a fitting analogy for how the bright, intensely willful, energetic, but academically mediocre housewife and salmon-fisher gamed her way from the Wasilla city council to the gubernatorial mansion in Juneau. Palin showed her form in her first big race, in 1996, when she challenged the three-term incumbent mayor of the town, John Stein, who seems not to have known what hit him. With the backing of her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, and the hunting interest, she campaigned on the nonmayoral issues of abortion and gun-ownership. It was put about that the Steins were living in sin: they produced their marriage certificate. It was also put about that Stein, a lapsed Lutheran, was Jewish. In 2008, he told William Yardley of The New York Times:

Sarah comes in with all this ideological stuff, and I was like, "Whoa." But that got her elected: abortion, gun rights, term limits and the religious born-again thing. I'm not a churchgoing guy, and that was another issue: "We will have our first Christian mayor." I thought, Holy cow, what's happening here?

In "Going Rogue", Stein is described as "relatively new to the community." "He wasn't a born-here, raised-here, gonna-be-buried-here type of hometown guy." Those darned wandering Jews.

Palin won by 651 votes to Stein's 440. Installed in the mayor's office, she sacked the town planner, police chief, museum director, and librarian (who was later reinstalled after a public protest), and set about her mission of deregulating Wasilla. Business inventory and personal property taxes were abolished; land was rezoned from residential to commercial to meet the needs of incoming big-box chain stores and fast-food outlets, and from single-family to multi-family to encourage speculative condo development; Palin cast the tie-breaking vote in council to stop the city adopting a building code. She held out the invitation to prospective investors in Wasilla to build what they liked, where they liked, out of any materials and to whatever standards that they chose. The long, unlovely, centerless ribbon of commerce that stretches along Alaska's Highway 3, punctuated by the signage of Subway, I-Hop, Burger King, Arby's, KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and the like, is a monument to Palin's cherished vision of the free-market, free-enterprise society. As she boasts--justifiably--of her time in Wasilla, "Basically, we'd gotten government out of the way."

After her two terms as mayor were up, she gained statewide recognition in her campaign to become lieutenant governor. What followed was pure basketball--swift, sure, and hard to follow without slow-motion action replays. The US Senate seat vacated by Frank Murkowski when he became governor was in his gift, and Palin, who'd campaigned for him, was one of several people he interviewed for the job before he gave it to his daughter, Lisa. Her pride sorely wounded, Palin nonetheless accepted his consolation prize, the chair of the three-person Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she sat alongside the chairman of the state Republican Party, Randy Ruedrich, and a geologist, Dan Seamount.

Hearing rumors that Ruedrich was leaking confidential state information to a natural gas company, she and a technician hacked into Ruedrich's e-mail account one evening and found evidence that he was conducting Republican Party business from his public office--an offense with which Palin was familiar, since she'd sent out flyers promoting herself from the mayor's office in Wasilla when she was running for lieutenant governor in 2002. She reported Ruedrich to the governor, demanding that he be sacked. When nothing happened, she threatened to resign herself if Ruedrich didn't go. Murkowski reluctantly told Ruedrich to step down or be dismissed. Two months later, in January 2004, Palin herself resigned from the commission, telling the press that she'd been gagged by the governor from speaking in public about Ruedrich's ethical violations.

In "Going Rogue", this episode is held up as the supreme example of Palin's courage, independence, sincerity, and passion. "As I typed out the [letter to Murkowski], I thought, This is it. I'm taking on the party and putting it in writing. My career is over. Well, if I die, I die. " It also illustrates her acute political gumption, her keen ear for the mood of the moment in the strip mall and the stands of the sports arena. Murkowski then was fast turning into Alaska's most unpopular governor on record, and the Alaska Republican Party was deeply implicated in the ongoing federal probe into the VECO Corporation bribery-and-corruption scandal, which would soon send five Republican lawmakers to jail.

At that time, 53 percent of Alaskan voters were registered as independents. By cutting herself loose from the tainted party, to great applause from the local press, Palin perfectly positioned herself to take on Murkowski in the gubernatorial primary of 2006, which she won by an overwhelming majority, as she went on to win the general election in November. It's impossible to know how much conscious calculation went into Palin's extremely smart moves in the Ruedrich affair; probably as much, and as little, as LeBron James needs to make when in possession of the ball.

She takes on the Republican Party again in the 130 pages of "Going Rogue" that describe her national travels as McCain's running mate; not McCain himself, but the functionaries who make up the rules of politics-as-usual, a pampered elite, with their fancy clothes, affected speech, and fancy hotels, led by Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace. Schmidt is portrayed like a TV villain; a "rotund" smoker who says "fuck"--or rather "f***"--in front of Palin's seven-year-old daughter, and is in the habit of wearing sunglasses in the dead of night, perched on top of his bald skull. Wallace is said to be "outwardly very affectionate," meaning that inwardly she's mean as hell. Palin's campaign chief of staff, Andrew Smith, appears briefly as Schmidt's personal goon, "a tanned, kind of tired-looking guy in a suit" who worked on Wall Street and speaks "in a thick East Coast accent" (enough said). He's never seen again.

This band of thugs, or "paid operatives" from the "professional political caste," acting on orders from an invisible headquarters that Palin isn't permitted to visit, keep her gagged and bound as they attempt to transform this sterling American original into a conventional politician. When she tries to speak to a journalist, "different pairs of hands hustled me into the campaign's Suburban." For hours on end, they torture her with facts on flashcards and prewritten evasive answers to tricky questions. "I couldn't force myself to play it safe and sound like a politician." Leaks from the campaign, about how Palin is a "diva," suffering from "postpartum depression," and "going rogue," find their way into the press, and Palin traces them to Schmidt himself:

Schmidt issued a threat that was veiled enough for deniability but as clear as day if you were on the receiving end: if there were any more leaks critical of anybody in the handling of Sarah Palin, then a lot more negative stuff would be said about Sarah Palin.

Steve Schmidt has called Palin's account of the campaign "total fiction"; Nicolle Wallace says it's "pure fiction." They're on well-trodden ground: in February 1997, three months into Palin's first term as mayor of Wasilla, her local paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, carried an editorial that said, "Mayor Palin fails to have a firm grasp of something very simple: the truth." Fact-checkers from the Associated Press and several tireless bloggers have uncovered scores of inaccuracies and "lies" in "Going Rogue". It's fair to doubt that any line of direct speech in the book was ever uttered by the person to whom it is attributed, and to assume that every factual detail has probably been either invented or twisted out of shape in order to cast Palin in the best possible light. That said, one might also remember the useful distinction made by the Barbizon painter J.F. Millet between the artist who paints directly from life and the artist who paints the same scene from memory: "...the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact."

Surprisingly, perhaps, this seems to be the case with "Going Rogue's" treatment of Palin's vice-presidential run. In "Sarah from Alaska", Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, who were embedded reporters on the Palin campaign for CBS and Fox News, and earn for themselves a couple of paragraphs of abuse in "Going Rogue", which adds to their credibility, largely confirm Palin's story in its broad outline and coloring. Their Schmidt and Wallace are characters nearly identical to her Schmidt and Wallace. Read side by side, the two books work like a stereoscope through which to watch the steadily darkening atmosphere of the campaign, the quarantining of Palin from the press, the infighting, the stream of leaks, and the vain attempts to educate the candidate in current affairs. Conroy and Walshe report that when Schmidt gave her a copy of Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, she obediently carried the book around in her purse but chose to read "People", "Us", and "Runner's World".

By both accounts, Palin was treated with extraordinary condescension from the start; more as a dim and wayward eighth-grader than as a sitting governor, putative vice-president, and the speaker whose rallies drew ten and twenty times the crowds that showed up to hear John McCain. Her admirers will see in these chapters a brutal crash course in the chicanery, pettiness, and sexism of national politics, from which their heroine emerges annealed, but with her spirit unbroken, as "real" and fiercely principled as on the day she took McCain's phone call on her BlackBerry at the Alaska state fair.

Her detractors rejoiced when, on July 3, 2009, at a hastily assembled press conference outside her Wasilla house, Palin announced that she was going to resign as governor, in a wild and rambling speech, delivered from notes at breakneck speed, about lame ducks, dead fish, selfless troops, basketball, quitters, General MacArthur, the politics of personal destruction, ethics complaints, destiny, the media, putting first things first, and how America was looking north to the future. She appeared to have lost her wits.

Now she's back: reviving the book business in provincial towns from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Richland, Washington; working on her keynote address to the Tea Party movement's national convention, to be held in Nashville, Tennessee, in February; tweeting daily, sometimes hourly, to her tribal followers about the state of the nation; and everywhere parading her Down's syndrome son, Trig, along with her most photogenic daughter, Piper, as living testaments to herself as the model pro-life mother. What she's running for is not yet clear, but she's evidently running for something.

"Going Rogue" is stuffed with dubious quotations from Famous Authors, among them one often attributed, but never reliably sourced, to Pascal: "the God-shaped vacuum in every human heart." Unfortunately, there does seem to be a Palin-shaped vacuum in the heart of the American electorate, and it's not hard to see why. After the ritual brandishing of the flag and her shout-outs to her fellow Christian fundamentalists, Palin's core message is, as it always has been, about fiscal policy.

In our present neo-Keynesian moment, economics has never seemed more bewildering and arcane, or more the exclusive preserve of hated "experts" from the "East Coast elites." Most people I know, myself included, can't readily follow the algebraic equations that explain the "Keynesian multiplier," which, in its turn, is needed to explain TARP and the stimulus package. Belonging to a tribe different from Palin's, I simply take it on trust as a matter of faith that Paul Krugman, in his columns for "The New York Times", is more likely to be right about such things than, say, Lou Dobbs or Senator John Thune, but I share in the general apprehensive fogginess about what's happening.

For Palin, it's simple. The national economy is a straightforward macrocosm of the domestic economy of the average god-fearing family of four. What's good for the family is good for the nation, and vice versa; and the idea that the family should spend its way out of recession is an affront to common sense, conservative or otherwise. On December 3, she tweeted: "Baffling/nonsensical: Obama's talk of yet another debt-ridden 'stimulus' pkg. Fight this 1, America, bc after last 1 unemployment rose, debt grew." Five days later, while Obama was speaking at the Brookings Institution about the economy, Palin wrote, "Quik msg b4 book event: Prez pls pay down massive, obscene U.S debt &/or give 'stimulus' $ back to Americans b4 propose spending more of our $."

Palin's general economic theory, so snugly adapted to Twitter's 140- character limit, carries great weight. At a time when everyone should be clipping coupons, tightening belts, and buying generic peanut butter, Obama (Columbia and Harvard), Larry Summers (MIT and Harvard), Tim Geithner (Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins), and Peter Orszag (Princeton and London School of Economics) are out on a spending spree that is "baffling," "nonsensical," and "obscene." But then what did we expect of the East Coast elites?

Against their transparent profligacy should be set the record of Sarah Palin (University of Idaho, School of Journalism and Mass Media). She made Wasilla hum, while putting an end to personal property taxes. As governor of her state, she taxed "Big Oil" and in 2008 mailed out a check for $3,269, drawn against the Alaska Permanent Fund, to every resident. (This payout shrank to $1,305 in 2009, after Palin quit the governorship.) She not only makes economics perfectly comprehensible at the level of the kitchen table, she makes it work brilliantly in practice.

The rage for Palin's pert simplicities reflects in part the failure of the Obama administration to persuade people of the wisdom and benefits of its far more sophisticated policies. Recently, I came across FDR's fireside chat of April 14, 1938,[2] when, speaking from the bottom of the second trough of the double-dip recession, he delivered a plain and passionate defense of deficit spending; Keynes for the family, and as resonant and topical now as it was seventy years ago. Nothing I've heard from the present administration matches its clarity, and where puzzlement and incomprehension exist, Palin leaps to fill the gap with facile and völkisch answers.

She's much more deeply in touch with her followers than Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, or any other recent candidate who's tried to court the same constituency. (Admittedly, they also lacked her flirty sex appeal.) She has the knack of turning public debate sulfurous with a phrase, as she did last summer with her remark that Democrats want "death panels" in their health plan. She is a catalyst around whom the Tea Party movement[3] is growing alarmingly in size and strength, PAC on PAC, determined to purge the Republican Party of its surviving moderate candidates, like Carly Fiorina and Charlie Crist, as, with Palin's help, it purged Dede Scozzafava in New York's Twenty-third Congressional District. Having hoisted her banner of Commonsense Conservatism, and campaigned across the country by Lear jet and tour bus to promote "Going Rogue", she's unlikely to assuage her compulsion to be a winner merely by selling more books than anyone else during 2009's holiday season. She is the stuff of democratic--with a small d--bad dreams.

Read more from The New York Review of Books.

________

Notes

[1]As she did in her speech at the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner at Evansville, Indiana, in April 2009, which can be seen at www.conservatives4palin.com/2009/04/right-to-life-dinner-video-live-feed.html.

[2]See www.mhric.org/fdr/chat12.html.

[3]See Michael Tomasky's essay, "Something New on the Mall," The New York Review, October 22, 2009.

Jonathan Raban's most recent books include Surveillance, Waxwings, and Passage to Juneau. He has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, and teh PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award. He lives in Seattle.


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