A review of Going Rogue: An American Life, by Sarah Palin

Books by politicians are an odd genre. Sometimes they reach the bestseller lists, but practically nobody reads them. For many people, the mere act of getting such a book is a political statement, like donning a campaign button. Buyers take satisfaction in knowing that a bit of the purchase price goes to a good cause (i.e., the author) and that displaying the book on the living-room shelf will tell visitors which side the household is on. Opening the thing is optional.

In the case of would-be presidents, such books tend to focus on two themes, in varying proportions: "My life (and how it made me so wonderful and humble)" and "My vision for America, with a twelve-point plan to curb the deficit (specific budget cuts not included)." Such works are usually ghost-written slabs of mindlessness, so buyers have good cause to leave them unread. The only people with a rational motive to turn every page are opposition researchers. If they're lucky, they will find nuggets that once seemed harmless but have since turned toxic. ("Here's a picture of me with my pals Rod Blagojevich, David Paterson, and John Edwards.")

In certain ways, Sarah Palin's book is typical. A ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent, did the actual labor of getting the words on paper. It's mostly a "my life" work, with a "vision" chapter at the end. That chapter, the weakest part of the book, is a barrage of clichés. "The nation is at a crossroads," she says. In an echo of President Obama, she adds: "Like every other ordinary American, I'm tired of the divisions and the special interests that pit us against one another."

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Yet in spite of all the pap and platitudes, Going Rogue is worth a look. Sarah Palin is different from other people who have run for president or vice president, as the description of her first child's birth makes clear. Instead of the peaceful Earth Mother experience that she had imagined, she writes, she vainly tried to do breathing techniques "when what I really wanted to do was scream bloody murder and beg for drugs. Blessed Mother of Jesus, I finally got them!" One does not find similar passages in George W. Bush's campaign autobiography.

More seriously, Going Rogue shows how her fifth child sets her apart from most other American politicians. In 2008, she gave birth to a boy with Down Syndrome. To anyone who has ever learned that a son or daughter is handicapped, her account is both familiar and moving. She got the first alarm during her pregnancy when a sonogram showed that the baby's neck was thicker than normal. She knew that such a feature was a sign of Down but then went into denial, thinking "God won't give me a special needs child." But He did. When amniocentesis confirmed the suspicion, she frantically tried to think of alternative explanations, such as a false positive or a paperwork mix-up. When she realized that there was no mistake, she recalled that such a diagnosis leads to abortion 90% of the time. That thought was "not a consideration so much as a sudden understanding of why people would grasp at a quick ‘solution,' a way to make the ‘problem' just go away. But again, I had to hold on to that seed of faith."

Many people in the public sphere preach about abortion, but very few have ever had to face the issue in their own lives. Sarah Palin has, and her decision to go through with the pregnancy confirms that her convictions are genuine. And yet, she evinces a sympathetic understanding of the pressures that could tempt people to take a different route.

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Other recollections suggest a more complex Sarah Palin than one would know from watching Tina Fey's impression on Saturday Night Live. Despite her opposition to intrusive government, she acknowledges a government program that enabled her to become a high school basketball star. "I'm a product of Title IX and am proud that it was Alaska's own Senator Ted Stevens who helped usher through the federal legislation in 1972 to ensure girls would have the right to the same education and athletic opportunities as boys." She cites Jennifer Gavora's study of Title IX, Tilting the Playing Field, reviewed in the CRB's Fall 2002 issue.

During the 2008 campaign, stories of her roundabout route to a college degree drew snickers from certain quarters. The book effectively swats down the criticism. "Yes, it did take me five years because I paid my own way," she says, explaining that she had to come home to work between semesters, and sometimes had to take time off before she could afford tuition again.

She recounts a vetting interview in which McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt asked her about evolution. When she suggested that she believed in some form of intelligent design, "Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows." Schmidt's reaction suggests that he did not know the state of public opinion. According to a 2008 Gallup survey, only 14% of Americans held the strict evolutionist position that God had no part in the ascent of man versus 80% who believed either that God guided the process (36%) or created humans directly in our current form (44%).

Palin is a strong supporter of traditional marriage, but she also believes in tolerance and the rule of law. When Alaska's supreme court ruled that the state had to offer health benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees, she explains, "As governor, I meant to follow the law…. It wasn't about me; it was—and is—about respecting the Constitution and the separation of powers."

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Overall, her governorship got strong reviews from the political community and ordinary Alaskans. Still, John McCain stunned the media when he chose her as his running mate. The selection should not have been so shocking. A sitting Republican lawmaker was out, since McCain was trying to position himself as an outsider untainted by congressional scandals. Demographic balance was helpful, lest Democrats attack the GOP for putting up yet another pale-male ticket. And because the party base was cool toward him, he needed someone who could excite conservatives. Two governors best met the criteria of reformism, conservatism, and demographic balance: Palin, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. After Jindal took himself out of the running, she was the only one left.

The party's initial response was enthusiastic. Fiscal conservatives liked her record of cutting pork barrel projects. Second Amendment enthusiasts happily rallied behind a fellow NRA member. Social conservatives admired her for walking the pro-life walk. Republican women thought she was one of them. Republican men thought she was hot.

The reaction from the commentariat was different. Having neither an elite education nor years of experience in national politics, she was quite alien to them. And what they saw, they did not like. The big hair, the big family, the hunting rifle, the blue-collar husband, the more-than-nominal churchgoing—all these things screamed "Not one of us!" The assaults began at once. The most notorious was blogger Andrew Sullivan's crackpot theory that she faked her pregnancy in order to cover up an out-of-wedlock birth by her daughter Bristol.

Within days, the news broke that Bristol was five months pregnant. Although this revelation discredited the Sullivan theory (at least to those who knew basic biology and arithmetic), it was a chum bucket for the media predators. Palin remembers that she was brushing her teeth when she saw it on television: "I nearly gagged on my toothbrush. Oh, God, I thought. Here we go." And there they went. Some liberal journalists eagerly speculated that conservatives would instantly turn their backs on her. But the GOP convention took place in 21st-century Minnesota, not 17th-century Massachusetts. Nobody was going to pin a scarlet letter on Palin just because her teenage daughter had hooked up with Mr. Wrong.

When reporters asked about Bristol, Barack Obama said that candidates' family lives were off limits and suggested he would oust anybody in his campaign who crossed that line. Three days later, a member of his finance committee told a national radio audience that Palin had put career above family. Obama kept him on board. After the election, Obama made him a trustee of his inauguration committee and later named him ambassador to Belgium.

The attacks on Palin's family made Republicans even more fervent in her defense. When she stepped onto the stage to accept the nomination, the crowd erupted in a long, loud, ecstatic yell. "I knew we'd have a great time that night," she recalls. And she did, even though her teleprompter jammed at one point and she had to give the speech from memory. Her smiling, confident delivery sent the audience into rapture and prompted Michael Reagan to say that the speech reminded him of his father. That's Republican canonization.

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For a couple of weeks afterward, it looked as if a Palin effect might shake up the race. The "enthusiasm gap" dramatically narrowed, with GOP volunteers fired up to work for the lady from Alaska, along with the old guy at the top of the ticket. After lagging in head-to-head matchups, McCain actually led in some polls by as much as 10 points. But the lead did not last. With a shaky economy, a protracted war, and an unpopular incumbent, any party would have a very rough time holding on to the White House. In mid-September, the financial crisis abruptly ended any GOP dreams of a 2008 triumph.

Around the same time, bad interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric scarred Palin's public image. In Going Rogue, she argues convincingly that the McCain campaign did a poor job of preparing her and that CBS edited the Couric interview to make her look as foolish as possible. But in spite of the extenuating circumstances, she has to bear much of the blame. Any candidate for national office has a responsibility to master the issues, especially when he or she lacks traditional credentials. She is justified in saying, "I knew that I had let the team down."

Some analysts have blamed her for the party's defeat—a dubious proposition. Political science forecasting models pointed to a major Democratic victory, and these forecasts came in before the September political mudslides. Although the GOP probably would have lost with or without her, her image problems have damaged her long-term prospects. A February 2010 poll showed that 52% of Republicans thought her unqualified for the presidency. Unless she can drastically reduce that figure, her chances of winning the nomination are remote.

Will the book help? In describing her experiences as Alaska's governor, Palin talks about policy more than hostile critics have let on. She has some sensible things to say about energy, the environment, and the corporatist political culture that she inherited. But as I suggested at the start, very few people will actually read the book. To fix her basic problems, Sarah Palin has to show that she can take tough questions from the press. Yes, the reporters may be biased, and yes, they may throw her curveballs. But so what? If she can't handle Meet the Press, how is she going to handle Iran? It would be a shame if she shrank from the test.