“Going Rogue,” the title of Sarah Palin’s erratic new memoir, comes from a phrase used by a disgruntled McCain aide to describe her going off-message during the presidential campaign: among other things, for breaking with the campaign over its media strategy and its decision to pull out of Michigan, and for speaking out about reports that the Republican Party had spent more than $150,000 on fancy designer duds for her and her family.
The most sustained and vehement barbs in this book are directed not at Democrats or liberals or the news media, but at the McCain campaign. The very campaign that plucked her out of Alaska, anointed her the Republican vice-presidential nominee and made her one of the most talked about women on the planet — someone who could command a reported $5 million advance for writing this book.
In what reads like payback for disparaging comments by John McCain’s aides about her after the ticket’s loss to Barack Obama, Ms. Palin depicts the McCain campaign as overscripted, defeatist, disorganized and dunderheaded — slow to shift focus from the Iraq war to the cratering economy, insufficiently tough on Mr. Obama and contradictory in its media strategy. She also claims that the campaign billed her nearly $50,000 for “having been vetted.” The vetting, which was widely criticized in the press as being cursory and rushed, was, she insisted, “thorough”: they knew “exactly what they’re getting.”
Although Ms. Palin writes that she is “proud of the senator” for being bold enough to put her on the ticket, some of her loudest complaints in this volume are directed at the McCain campaign’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt, ironically enough, was one of the aides to most forcefully make the case for putting her on the ticket in the first place, arguing to Mr. McCain, as Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson reported in their recent book, “The Battle for America 2008,” that she would shake up the race and help him get his “reform mojo back.” Over the weekend McCain aides fired back at Ms. Palin: Mr. Schmidt was quoted on Politico.com saying that charges about him were “all fiction.”
Back in 2008 Robert Draper reported in The New York Times Magazine that neither Mr. Schmidt nor Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, apparently saw Ms. Palin’s “lack of familiarity with major national or international issues as a serious liability,” and that Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot, saw the idea of upending the chessboard as a maverick move.
All in all Ms. Palin emerges from “Going Rogue” as an eager player in the blame game, ungrateful to the McCain campaign for putting her on the national stage. As for the McCain campaign, it often feels like a desperate and cynical operation, willing to make a risky Hail Mary pass to try to score a tactical win, instead of making a considered judgment as to who might be genuinely qualified to sit a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
In “Going Rogue” Ms. Palin talks perfunctorily about fiscal responsibility and a muscular foreign policy, and more passionately about the importance of energy independence, but she is quite up front about the fact that much of her appeal lies in her just-folks “hockey mom” ordinariness. She pretends no particular familiarity with the Middle East, the Iraq war or Islamic politics — “I knew the history of the conflict,” she writes, “to the extent that most Americans did.” And she argues that “there’s no better training ground for politics than motherhood.”
A CNN poll taken last month indicates that 7 out of 10 Americans now think Ms. Palin is not qualified to be president, and even as ardent a conservative as Charles Krauthammer lamented in September 2008 “the paucity of any Palin record or expressed conviction on the major issues of our time.”
Yet Mr. McCain’s astonishing decision to pick someone with so little experience (less than two years as the governor of Alaska, and before that, two terms as mayor of Wasilla, an Alaskan town with fewer than 7,000 residents) as his running mate underscores just how alarmingly expertise is discounted — or equated with elitism — in our increasingly democratized era, and just how thoroughly colorful personal narratives overshadow policy arguments and actual knowledge. Ms. Palin herself had a surprisingly nonchalant reaction to Mr. McCain’s initial phone call about the vice president’s slot, writing that she was not astonished, that it felt “like a natural progression.”
Ms. Palin suggests that she and her husband, Todd, are ideally qualified to represent the Joe Six-Packs of the world because they are Joe Six-Packs themselves. “We know what it’s like to be on a tight budget and wonder how we’re going to pay for our own health care, let alone college tuition,” she writes in “Going Rogue.” “We know what it’s like to work union jobs, to be blue-collar, white-collar, to have our kids in public schools. We felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans, could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.”
“Going Rogue” (written with an assist from Lynn Vincent, a senior writer and former features editor of World, an evangelical magazine) is part cagey spin, part earnest autobiography, part payback hit job. And its most compelling sections deal not with politics but with Ms. Palin’s life in Alaska and her family. Despite an annoying tendency to drop the names of lots of writers and philosophers gratuitously — in the course of this book she quotes or alludes to Pascal, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Paine, Pearl S. Buck, Mark Twain and Melville — she does a lively job of conveying the frontier feel of the 49th state, where television broadcasts were tape-delayed in her youth and they shopped for clothes “via mail order through the Sears catalog,” where “we don’t have big-league professional sports teams or many celebrities (except famous dog mushers),” and so regard politics as a local sport.
The self-portrait created in these pages recalls the early profiles of Ms. Palin that appeared just after her debut on the national stage: a self-reliant frontierswoman who knows how to field dress a moose; a feisty gal with lots of moxie and pep; a former beauty queen with a George W. Bush-like aptitude for mangling the English language. (The first paragraph of the book contains the phrase “I breathed in an autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.”) She talks about juggling motherhood with politics, and gives a moving account of learning that her son Trig would be born with Down syndrome.
She recalls her initial feeling — “I don’t think I could handle that” — and her “sudden understanding of why people would grasp at a quick ‘solution,’ a way to make the ‘problem’ just go away,” though her own pro-life stance would deny women the choice of having an abortion.
Elsewhere in this volume she talks about creationism, saying she “didn’t believe in the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or from “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.” In everything that happens to her, from meeting Todd to her selection by Mr. McCain for the Republican ticket, she sees the hand of God: “My life is in His hands. I encourage readers to do what I did many years ago, invite Him in to take over.”
Just as Ms. Palin’s planned book tour resembles a campaign rollout — complete with a bus tour and pit stops in battleground states — so the second half of this book often reads like a calculated attempt to position Ms. Palin for 2012. She tries to compare herself to Ronald Reagan by repeatedly invoking his name and record. She talks about being “a Commonsense Conservative” and worrying about the national deficit. And she attempts to explain, rationalize or refute controversial incidents and allegations that emerged during the 2008 race.
She says she “never sought to ban any books” as mayor of Wasilla, and has always had a “special passion for reading.” She suggests that the $150,000-plus designer clothes were the campaign’s idea, that she and her family are actually frugal coupon clippers who shop at Costco. And she says that she was manipulated into doing that famous series of Katie Couric interviews (which would do much to cement an image of her as an easily caricatured ignoramus) by Nicolle Wallace, a communications aide for the campaign, and that Ms. Couric just seemed to want “to frame a ‘gotcha’ moment.”
Along the way Ms. Palin acknowledges that she is a busy, “got to go-go-go” sort of person — and for an average hockey mom, pretty ambitious.
“As every Iditarod musher knows,” she writes of the well-known Alaska dog-sled race, “if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.”
The New York Times