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Sarah Vain and Simple

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When Sarah Palin burst onto the American stage little more than a year ago as John McCain's running mate, she was a virtual unknown in the Lower 48 and a relative political novice even in Alaska. A slim fifteen months later, Palin is now an iconic figure in American culture who reflects the troubling confluence of image and celebrity in our national polity.

In what has been one of the most ramped-up media blitzes in recent memory, Palin's highly anticipated autobiography, Going Rogue, soared to the top of all the major best-seller lists months before its official publication. Those in conservative circles have triumphantly compared her memoir to those written by Barack Obama in advance of his run for the U.S. Senate and then the presidency. Make no mistake about it: Dreams from My Father or The Audacity of Hope this is not.

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With all the incumbent hype, one might have expected that Going Rogue would have risen above many of the petty and even vicious traits that Palin exhibited on the campaign trail last fall revving up the GOP faithful with incendiary attacks on Obama. Instead, Going Rogue sinks even further into Palin's unique brand of narcissism and victimhood. She remains an unapologetic warrior in our country's culture wars and the most divisive politician of our time.

While not nearly as garbled as some of Palin's more memorable "word salads" (so delightfully parodied by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live), Going Rogue, written by Palin with evangelical author Lynn Vincent, is both uneven in its composition and erratic in its argumentation. It is also riddled with many of the lies, half-truths and distortions for which Palin has become notorious.

The Palin portrayed in Going Rogue is surprisingly unlikable. She is vengeful, mean-spirited and spiteful -- and this in a narrative she has crafted herself. She takes cheap shots at the likes of Michelle Obama, John Kerry and Alec Baldwin, and describes Katie Couric as "the lowest-rated news anchor in network television." While Palin claims that her life "is in His [God's] hands," vengeance would seem to be her guiding light.

The character that emerges from Going Rogue is also remarkably shallow. This past summer, bloggers in Alaska reported rumors that there was marital discord in the Palin household and, perhaps, a pending divorce. Palin's response is simply to say that she looked over at her husband, Todd, "tanned and shirtless," his "blue eyes smiling," and thought "Dang...Divorce Todd? Have you seen Todd?" End of discussion. Palin just can't seem to get below the surface.

Much has been made already of Palin's celebrated battles with McCain's senior advisers, most notably "The Bullet," Steve Schmidt, during the rough-and-tumble dog days of the national campaign. Palin's version of events, however, goes counter to much of the readily documented evidence. For instance, Palin tries to shed any semblance of responsibility for her role in the humiliating prank call by a comedian posing as French president Nicolas Sarkozy and claims in the aftermath that Schmidt telephoned her, screaming angrily, "How can anyone be so stupid?!"

Those who were on the bus with Palin at the time, however, contend that the Schmidt phone call never happened. An email produced by the campaign provides evidence that Schmidt's response was far more tempered than Palin would have us believe. Schmidt, for his part, has called Palin's rendition of the campaign "total fiction."

For a more honest and balanced portrait of Palin's performance last fall, readers can turn to Sarah From Alaska, by Shushannah Walshe and Scott Conroy (Public Affairs; 320 pages; $26.95), a pair of enterprising young television reporters who were embedded on Palin's plane during the campaign. Although they bend too far backwards to be "evenhanded" with Palin, they nonetheless acknowledge her "tendency to refuse to acknowledge any error in judgment and to offer instead a version of events that could easily be proved false."

There are a handful of insightful and honest reflections in Going Rogue, such as when Palin discusses her miscarriages, the birth of her son Trig (who has Down syndrome), her son Track going off to war and her daughter Bristol's teen pregnancy. But even these moments are absent of real emotional gravitas. One gets the sense that Palin simply can't go there.

What's astonishing is that Palin has absolutely no clue as to where she fits into American political traditions and the current Republican zeitgeist. That is left to the brilliant political parody Going Rouge, edited by Richard Kim and Betsy Reed (OR Books; 336 pages; $16). Rouge includes more than 50 essays on Palin by an all-star array of contributors, including Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Traister, Katha Pollitt, Max Blumenthal and Alaska's own Shannyn Moore and Jeanne Devon (AKMuckraker).

Even Matthew Continetti, whose worshipful apologia The Persecution of Sarah Palin (Sentinel; 226 pages; $25.95) captures the unadulterated pathos of those conservatives who continue to admire and support Palin, is forced to concede that Palin's rants are "arguments for polemicists to make, not statesmen."

Going Rogue might have marked Palin's moment of advancing her career beyond the series of car crashes that defined her rocky candidacy last fall and her failed governorship of the Last Frontier. Instead, it is a retreat to the evangelical netherworld that fuels her personal ambitions. Going Rogue is short on political vision and long on self-promotion. It would have been more aptly subtitled An American Lie.

Going Rogue: An American Life
By Sarah Palin; with Lynn Vincent
HarperCollins; 413 pages; $28.99

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Award-winning writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn's book The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power will be released by St. Martin's Press in spring 2010.