Beware the Powerful Fantasy World of Sarah Palin

The US vice-presidential candidate’s memoir mocks the truth, but she remains a possible future American leader

"Going Rogue"

"Going Rogue" features the lies and half-truths of Sarah Palin.

What can one say about one of the most compelling and bizarre works of “non-fiction” on the market, Going Rogue by Sarah Palin?

I have to say it stymies me somewhat. Treating it as some kind of factual narrative to check (as I began to), or comparing its version of events with her previous versions of the same events (as I have), and comparing all those versions with what we know is empirical reality, is a dizzying task. The lies and truths and half-truths and the facts and non-facts are all blurred together in a pious purée of such ghastly self-serving prose that, in the end, the book can really be read only as some kind of chapter in a cheap 19th-century edition of Lives of the Saints.

It is a religious book, full of myths and parables. And Sarah is fast becoming a religious icon of sorts for what is now the Republican base. On the first day of her tour, she dragged her infant with Down’s syndrome everywhere she went, even waving his hand to the crowds at one point as his little head swung back and forth. Here is the Madonna with child and a child that is an emblem of everything those who oppose abortion believe in.

Yet the book is also crafted politically, with every single detail of the narrative honed carefully for specific constituencies. The pro-life base is nurtured; various Republican allies are flattered; former sparring partners in the McCain campaign are lacerated; the evil liberal media are portrayed as a pack of ravenous hounds (even though they were unable to get an open press conference from her in the entire campaign, a fact unique in modern American political history).

It is also some kind of manifesto — but not in the usual sense of a collection of policy proposals. It is a manifesto for a certain identity — the heartland religious fundamentalist who is bewildered and angry at the world America no longer controls, at the debt and government that now dominate and at the liberal elites they hold responsible (even though the Republicans have been in power for a generation). This image is not, of course, made up out of whole cloth. Palin is indeed a feisty Alaskan and a genuine triumph of red-state feminism. But her narrative is embellished and embroidered to such an extent, it resembles not so much a memoir as a work of magical realism.

If you treat it as a factual narrative you will soon falter. Among the few early reactions were those of Nicolle Wallace — a McCain campaign staffer — who said of one passage: “It is pure fiction. No such discussion took place.” A reporter Palin says targeted her daughter Piper after a press conference was never at the press conference cited. Palin’s claim that she was personally billed $50,000 for vetting is point blank denied by the McCain campaign. Palin’s account of her record in the Exxon Valdez lawsuit was described last week by the chief lawyer for the case as “the most cockamamie bullshit”. I could go on. None of this is particularly surprising. Palin has a long and documented record of saying things that are empirically untrue but asserting them as if her own imagination is the only source of objective reality.

So you simply read the book as if it is fiction and enjoy it. Or you read it as non-fiction and believe that Palin is a magical mythical figure who defies the laws of time and space and normal human nature.

Take one story that every mother will relate to: the drama of her delivery of her fifth child, Trig. She tells us that at eight months pregnant with a child she knew had Down’s syndrome and would need special care at birth, she got on a plane from Alaska to Dallas, Texas, to attend an energy conference. Most airlines won’t allow this but Alaska Airlines did. Palin then tells us that at 4am on her first night in Dallas, “a strange sensation low in my belly woke me and I sat up straight in bed”. In an interview she gave with the Anchorage Daily News just after Trig’s birth, she confirmed that she had amniotic fluid leaking at that point.

So she was a mother eight months pregnant with a special-needs child thousands of miles from home. She wakes up in the middle of the night with contractions and amniotic leakage and she tells her husband she doesn’t want to call her doctor because it would wake her up at 1am. And she is the sitting governor of a state and her doctor is a close personal friend. Not only that, but she gives the speech as planned in the afternoon, during which she makes a rather good joke. She then tells us what happens next: “Big laughs. More contractions.”

After the speech, does she then go to a local hospital to get checked out? Nah. She gets on two separate aeroplanes all the way back to Alaska, with a stopover in Seattle, because she is determined to have the child in her home town and she just knows that the contractions and amniotic leakage are not signs of imminent delivery. She has had four previous kids so she has experience. “I still had plenty of time … It was a calm, relatively restful flight home,” she explains of the next 15 hours.

You might imagine that an airline would have some qualms about letting a woman in some sort of labour at eight months, and pregnant with a Down’s syndrome child, get on a long transcontinental flight. What if the baby were born in mid-flight? The plane would have to be diverted. What if something happened to the baby? The airline could be liable. Palin never told the flight attendants. Couldn’t they tell, one might innocently ask. In the Anchorage Daily News story about the birth, Alaska Airlines said: “The stage of her pregnancy was not apparent by observation. She did not show any signs of distress.” Palin makes Xena, the warrior princess, seem fragile.

It is this image of a frontierswoman, capable of almost anything, fiercely independent, fathomlessly brave, totally unflappable, driven and blessed by faith in God, resisting the evil cynicism and hatred of the eastern elites, ambushed by hostile interviewers, persecuted by her godless enemies and carrying on as an “iron lady” of Alaskan dimensions, that makes her such a powerful cultural and political icon. Her physical beauty doesn’t hurt either.

That is why, despite the fact that she quit the only key political office she had held in her first term for no good reason, she remains a viable candidate for the next presidential election. In a steep recession, with intractable wars abroad, with unemployment rising and paranoia deepening, Palin knows America wants a spiritual and cultural saviour. And God has chosen her.

Andrew Sullivan
Times Online

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