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Donald Craig Mitchell

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My Verdict on Joe McGinniss' The Rogue

Posted: 09/23/11 08:11 PM ET

Go to Barnes & Noble. Read pages 137-142. Put the book back on the shelf. After reading The Rogue, Joe McGinniss' new book on the life and meteoric rise of Sarah Palin, that's my advice.

Joe McGinniss is a smart guy, an entertaining drinking companion, and a journeyman wordsmith who has taught himself how to tell a story even when there is no story to tell. But thousands of writers have the same skill-set. What throughout his career has distinguished Joe from his peers is that he also is an unusually talented marketeer. That's a compliment. Because any trade press publisher will tell you that what a writer has to have in order to get published these days is a "platform."

"Platform" is trade press lingo for an author's ability to generate the kind of free publicity in newspapers and magazines, through radio and television appearances, and on the Internet that can move product, which, like a tube of toothpaste or a six-pack of Diet Coke, is what a book is.

As everyone who has been reading the comic strip Doonesbury recently knows, Joe McGinniss has constructed a brilliant platform for The Rogue.

Joe first began building that platform back in 1969 when an imprint of Simon & Schuster published The Selling of the President, Joe's expose of how Roger Ailes used network television to sell Richard Nixon to the electorate during the 1968 presidential election. Since the book tour on which he embarked to sell The Selling of the President, Joe has demonstrated a natural gift for self-promotion. But at the core, Joe McGinniss is a derivative talent who, thanks to Gary Trudeau, the cartoonist who draws Doonesbury, is this week's most famous writer in America only because more than 40 years ago Joe set-about ripping off Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the writer who reinvented the writer's platform for the modern media age.

Dr. Thompson's manic genius was to write himself into the middle of the story. In 1966 Random House published Hell's Angels in which Hunter experimented with reporting on the famous outlaw motorcycle gang by reporting on riding with them, an account that ends with the postscript: "On Labor Day 1966, I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly stomped by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them."

By 1971 when Random House published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dr. Thompson had become the central subject of his own writing, his Wild Turkey-fueled drug-riven adventures the spine of the narrative around which he strung snippets of information about whatever the subject was that he purportedly was being paid to write about.

As a writer Joe McGinniss is no Hunter Thompson. Compare "I moved in next door to Sarah Palin today," the first sentence of The Rogue, with "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold," the legendary first sentence of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

So what does Hunter Thompson have to do with Joe McGinniss?

In The Selling of the President, which Joe wrote two years after the publication of Hell's Angels, Joe made himself a minor character in the Roger Ailes/Richard Nixon story. Then, following along behind on the trail Dr. Thompson had blazed nine years earlier in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in Going to Extremes, which Alfred Knopf published in 1980, Joe imitated Hunter by making himself the story in his first-person account of a winter he spent in Alaska. Joe passes through Juneau. Joe visits the Prudhoe Bay oil field. Joe flies to Bethel. Joe spends time in Anchorage. Joe meets some locals. That's the book.

When Joe McGinniss passed through Alaska to "research" Going to Extremes I had been living there six years. So I knew the places Joe visited, and a number of the people about whom Joe wrote were friends or acquaintances of mine. I thought then and continue to think now that Going to Extremes was an entertaining read but an inconsequential book. But more than thirty years later Going to Extremes is still in print and remains one of the best-selling books that has ever been written about Alaska. Not because of its content, which is stale and of no lasting importance. But because of the genius Joe brought to promoting Going to Extremes by making himself the center of his own writing and his own book marketing campaign.

Having mastered in Going to Extremes the formula Hunter Thompson had pioneered, in 1983 Joe used that formula again to earn another six figure payday when G.P. Putnam's Sons published Fatal Vision, Joe's account of the time he spent living with Captain Jeffrey MacDonald and his defense attorneys when the army put MacDonald on trial for having carved up his wife and children in their home on the Fort Bragg Army Base in North Carolina.

I mention all that because The Rogue is Going to Extremes Redux. It's a marketing platform. It's not a book.

In The Rogue Joe flies to Alaska and rents the house next door to Sarah and Todd Palin and their dysfunctional brood on the shore of Lake Lucille in Wasilla. Joe buys two arm chairs at a garage sale. Joe drives to Fairbanks. Joe visits Homer. Joe flies to Sitka. Joe's wife comes for a visit. Joe packs up and flies home. That's the narrative, which is of interest only in its odd passivity.

Around the spine of that narrative The Rogue hangs snippets of information about Sarah Palin that Joe (or his research assistant?) plucked out of the thousands of newspaper and magazine articles that have been written about Sarah over the past three years, including several of mine. The Rogue also passes along rumors, innuendos, and first and secondhand hearsay that the various people Joe sought out passed along to him.

Are those rumors, innuendos, and hearsay worth the $25 Joe and Random House want you to spend in order to read them?

You can decide for yourself. But I don't think so.

So what if during the 1980s Sarah and Todd Palin snorted a line or two of cocaine off the top of an oil drum? As anyone, starting but hardly ending with me, who was there will tell you, in Alaska during the 1980s almost everyone Sarah and Todd Palin's ages who had the money to do so did coke, including quite a few members of the Alaska Legislature and the late twenty and early thirty-something staff members who worked for them who occasionally coked up in public off lines they laid down on the tops of the tables at which they were sitting in the Latchstring, which until it burnt down in an arson, was the Legislature's principal watering hole in the state capital. So Sarah's recreational drug use during the 1980s was hardly aberrant.

And so what if, as Joe tells us that one of her "friends" told him, when she was 23 and single Sarah fucked (according to Joe, Sarah's word choice) a black college basketball star who was about her same age? Is it any of the world's business who Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann were fucking when they were single and 23? And what does whoever that may have been have to do with their qualifications to be President of the United States in 2012?

But if The Rogue is to books what the Saw franchise is to movies, using the platform he has spent the past 40 years building to exploit Sarah Palin (who certainly deserves being exploited) for what this time around may be a seven figure payday, Joe McGinniss has done America an important service by including in The Rogue a description of the lunch Joe had with Gary and Corky Wheeler.

Gary Wheeler is not a disgruntled Wasilla homeboy or one of Sarah's unnamed "friends" who talked to Joe because they are embittered road kill who friend Sarah chewed up and then (to mix my metaphors) left gut-shot along the side of the Parks Highway that runs through Wasilla during her it-only-can-happen-in-America journey up the line from small town mayor to People magazine icon.

Gary Wheeler is a retired Alaska State Trooper who provided security for Sarah during the two-plus years she served as Governor of Alaska, just as he had the two governors who preceded her. Spending hours of private face-time with Governor Palin gave Trooper Wheeler an opportunity to assess Sarah's intellect, character, and temperament that few other people, and certainly not John McCain before he selected her as his vice presidential running mate, have had.

If Sarah decides to run for President (which I've been betting that, when push finally comes to shove, she's not going to do) Joe McGinniss is going to sell a lot more copies of The Rogue than the several tens of thousands he already has because Trooper Wheeler's assessment of candidate Palin will be required reading.

If you can't wait until Sarah announces whether she's running or not, go to Barnes & Noble, pull The Rogue down off the shelf, and read pages 137-142. I won't spoil your fun other than to predict that if based on what you've seen of her over the past three years you suspect that Sarah Palin is a narcissistic and intellectually incurious sociopath Gary Wheeler will confirm your hunch. And for those of you who may not be able to get to your local Barnes & Noble before The Rogue sells out, I'll pass along Trooper Wheeler's bottom line. Which is that Sarah Palin's "no mama grizzly; she's a rabid wolf. Take a look at the snow: wherever she's been, there's a trail of blood in her wake."

So thanks Joe. That quote alone makes The Rogue worth every dollar that I have to fess up that I took my own advice and didn't pay for it.