If Europe has embraced Barack Obama as a superhero, who is the supervillain? His antithesis in many ways and his equal in American media stature, Sarah Palin might consider being cast in this role a compliment. While one is a liberal black man whose words soar in the clouds, the other is a conservative white woman whose folksy language aims for the dirt. In her new autobiography, Going Rogue, Palin proudly poses as the Anti-Obama, and apparently, the Anti-Obama is nowhere near leaving the national stage.
Selling 300,000 copies in its first day alone, Going Rogue had one of the most successful non-fiction releases in the history of publishing. Her book tour has been seeing Obama-like crowd numbers, a thousand at each store. The book, in terms of its reception and its content, serves as proof that conservative America still has a strong voice, and even if that voice grates on your nerves, you’re going to be hearing it for years to come.
So what does this voice have to say in Going Rogue? First, it’s important to note that the voice isn’t exactly coming straight from the moose’s mouth. There’s a ventriloquist at work in the 413 pages; conservative author Lynn Vincent has been widely reported as the book’s ghost writer yet is only mentioned in passing in the five page-long Acknowledgements. By keeping the ghost writer so ghostly, Harper Collins Publishers have undermined the authenticity of a politician whose gimmick is being the authentic smalltown gal from good ol’ Wasilla, Alaska. The reader can’t help but question the sincerity of a book when he knows a ghost writer is present but not mentioned on the cover.
Palin/Vincent begin the book like every other celebrity autobiography: in the middle of the action, at a moment of great excitement. Here, it’s at the Alaska State Fair, where then-Governor Palin is strolling around with her little girl when she receives a phone call from presidential candidate John McCain asking her if she “wanted to help him change history.” The narrative then rewinds to Palin’s birth, and we spend the first half of the book learning what came before that life-changing phone call. We discover what made Sarah Sarah, which (besides her faith, of course) is basically two things: an obsession with sports and a near-orgasmic appreciation for Alaska.
In her formative years, sports seemed to control Palin’s every move, and even today, a good deal of her philosophy comes from basketball coaches. I am not exaggerating the influence of athletics on this woman’s life. From page forty-one: “Everything I ever needed to know, I learned on the basketball court.” Her high school sweetheart and future husband is first introduced in the book as “the best basketball player Wasilla’s ever seen.” In college, she studied to become a sports reporter. And she named her firstborn child “Track.” Why? It was track season at the time.
As for her affection for her home state, the book easily could’ve been subtitled “My Love Letter to Alaska” (rather than “An American Life,” which was directly borrowed from her hero Ronald Reagan’s autobiography). She constantly celebrates the adventuresome frontier world from whence she came, and in doing so, elevates her ruggedness to such a level that the typical gun-loving American will view her as The Uber-Redneck, fit to lead us all.
The narrative gets interesting at the halfway point, when we see what comes after that fateful phone call from Senator McCain, when “Sarah Palin” became a household name overnight. Some Rogue highlights from the unsuccessful 2008 vice-presidential run that couldn’t stop Obama-mania:
• In the extensive vetting process she had to go through before becoming McCain’s running mate, Palin told the campaign staff there was only one skeleton in her closet: “It made me nervous and sick to my stomach, but I felt obligated to confess that “D” in the college course twenty-years before.”
• Her famous joke at the Republican National Convention (“. . . the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? . . . Lipstick!”) was actually ad libbed. The teleprompter was malfunctioning, allowing Sarah to improvise.
• It’s no secret that McCain’s staffers kept Palin under their thumb, but the way they did it is comical: Any order she received was said to have come down from “headquarters,” “a mysterious, faraway entity whose exact identity and location were never fully explained.”
• Palin says the disastrous Katie Couric interview was a result of biased editing and Couric being un-American. She cites a comment Couric later made about being “a little uncomfortable” by the hyper-patriotism following September 11. Palin is more than comfortable with patriotism, writing “America is the best country on earth,” and more curiously: “America must remain the strongest nation in the world in order to remain free.”
• On Tina Fey’s infamous impression of Palin on Saturday Night Live: People had always told Palin she looked like Fey, so one year, Palin was Tina Fey for Halloween.
• The oft-repeated line about Obama “palling around with terrorists” was not written by Palin, though she “was happy to be the one to deliver it.” Where did the line come from, then? Headquarters.
After covering the campaign, Palin explains her reasoning behind not finishing out her term as Alaskan governor, and the final twenty pages are devoted to articulating her political beliefs, which allows her to take jabs at President Obama. She calls herself a Commonsense Conservative, citing Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as her idols, and in defining this label cites “a respect for history and tradition, including traditional moral principles.” Her primary moral assertion is that “man is fallen.” “This, above all,” Palin writes, “is what informs my pragmatic approach to politics.” In other words, she explains, because man is inherently weak and susceptible to sin, we should give up the idealistic hope that the government can somehow “fix” society.
This begs the question: Why bother running for office and become a part of this futile thing called government? A cynical reader might find the answer buried in a rant regarding Obama’s attempts to redistribute wealth: Palin writes, “Abe Lincoln reminded Americans that you can’t lift up the poor by pushing down the very people who created jobs for them.” This is as close as Palin comes to acknowledging a cornerstone of the Republican party: the interests of the rich must be protected. If society can’t be fixed, government can at least make sure that the fallen rich man doesn’t have to help the fallen poor man through his taxes.
To be fair, regardless of her political agenda, it’s hard to read Going Rogue and not sympathize with a woman who could have led a much easier life had she never gone into politics. Since she has entered the male-dominated world of government, she has endured all kinds of sexism, constantly having to defend the fact that she has children (now numbering five). When she won a mayoral race fair and square, her foes attempted to have her recalled and drafted a petition claiming she wasn’t experienced enough. As mayor, when she fired a very uncooperative police chief, he sued her for sexual discrimination, saying she fired him because she was intimidated by his masculine authority. And McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, (the book’s archvillain besides Obama), blamed McCain’s loss on Sarah, saying she was inept because of her diet which affected her cognition and supposed post-partum depression.
Also to her credit, Palin proves to be capable of sympathy herself in the one truly surprising moment of the entire book: She admitted that when she learned the child in her womb would have Down Syndrome, the thought of abortion entered her mind, and because of this, she had a better understanding of pro-choicers. For someone so firmly entrenched in the far right, this was the one politically risky passage.
The rest of the book, though, remains safely in predictable territory, from its opening dedication to American troops to its ambiguous ending that leaves room for a future White House bid. The book fails to address some obvious questions, such as, “Why did she get involved in politics in the first place?” The only explanation is that a local bigshot thought she’d do well on the city council. Similarly, her joining a presidential ticket is treated like something that just sort of happened. The result is a self-aggrandizing book you’d expect from any politician, though it is impossible to read it without concluding that villain or hero, it’s not easy being Sarah Palin.
The German translation of this article can be found here.
Joey Goebel, born in 1980 in Henderson, Kentucky, is one of US-literature's greatest talents. He is often compared to T.C. Boyle and John Irving. He wrote his first stories when he was five years old and toured for many years throughout America as the leadsinger of a punk band. This experience inspired his debut "Freaks", which was later followed by the novels "Vincent" and "Heartland". His books are published in German translation by the Diogenes Verlag.