I almost never read autobiographies by politicians, or anyone else, for that matter, self-hagiography being inherently repellent to me. But I decided to read Sarah Palin’s book, “Going Rogue,” because Palin intrigues me. During the last election, to my amazement, she became the focus of virtually the entire campaign, arousing among her supporters a reverential zeal, and among her detractors – the main- stream media and other elites – a furious, ferocious hatred.
She was the subject of the most withering political attack I have ever seen. The Democratic National Committee and the mainstream media sent dozens of investigators up to Alaska to look for whatever negatives they could find, a scrutiny never accorded Obama. She was derided as stupid, vain, corrupt, and alleged to have a dysfunctional family. Why, heavens, her daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, something unknown in contemporary America! Perhaps the all-time low in American politics was hit when a mock Planned Parenthood ad was run on the internet, showing Palin holding her Down’s syndrome baby with a coat hanger in one corner and the tag line “Better Luck Next Time” in another comer. It takes a profound, soul-filling hatred to evolve this sort of sick attack.
So I decided to plow through the 400-plus pages of the autobiography. I went hoping to find the answers to four simple questions. First, were any of the attacks true, or largely true? Second, if not, why did so many elites and media despise her so profoundly? Third, does she plan to run for higher office? Fourth, if she does, should I support her? The book gave me answers, alas, only for the first three questions.
Palin’s book has six chapters. In the first, she covers her youth in small towns in Alaska during the 1970s. It discusses the sports she played in high school, then at the University of Idaho. This is all covered in some detail, as is her romance with Todd, her husband, and the birth of her children.
Now, there was an anonymous story put out that Palin’s book was ghost- written. I find this unlikely. The prose sounds quite like her: fulsome, almost gushy, sentences, chock full of details about her life and times. And, after all, it isn’t as if she couldn’t write her own copy: she took a degree in journalism, then worked as a sports-writer, and has penned a number of columns for large newspapers. She didn’t need a ghost.
But to return … in the second chapter she recounts (again in detail) her entry into politics. She says that the catalyst for her decision was witnessing the Exxon-Valdez disaster, in which an oil tanker ran aground, spilling a massive amount of oil that in turn destroyed much of the local ecosystem. She started by running for city council (in Wasilla, Alaska) in 1992, and then for mayor in 1996. In that office, she became known for cutting most taxes – as well as expanding some city services.
The third chapter covers her run for governor in 2006. She won against what initially seemed rather tall odds, defeating an entrenched Republican (Frank Murkowski) in the primary and a Democratic former governor (Tony Knowles) in the general election. She_ ran on a platform of cleaning up corruption. The state certainly needed cleaning up, particularly in respect to corrupt dealings between state officials and oil companies. Many were later exposed and indicted. She won the election in 2006.
Palin discusses in detail what she regards as her biggest accomplishments as governor. And they do seem large, given her brief tenure. She found a solution to the problem of building the long-stalled natural gas pipeline to the lower 48 states. She renegotiated a better deal with the oil companies. She cancelled most of the pork-barrel projects that had been obtained from Washington, DC. She passed a tough new ethics bill, which would later be used against her. And she forced Exxon to start drilling on land it had leased for decades.
In chapter 4, the longest in the book, she covers her surprise selection as McCain’s VP choice in 2008, and the subsequent campaign. She discusses candidly – indeed, cheerfully – many features of the campaign that must have been highly unpleasant for her: the VP debate prep, the infamous TV interview with Katie Couric, and the emerging tensions between her camp of support staff and McCain’s. She takes this opportunity to settle scores with some of McCain’s advisers. She says, for example, that her suggestion that they go after certain details of Obama’s back- ground – such as his affiliations with leftwing radicals and his wacky racist church – was dismissed. If that is so, her instincts were sounder than those of McCain’s handlers. But throughout, she shows nothing but respect and admiration for McCain and his family.
In chapter 5, she discusses her feelings about the loss and the aftermath. Here she has a chance to vent her no doubt deeply (and in my view, rightly) held resentment that while Obama’s, Biden’s, and McCain’s children were considered off-limits to media attack, her children were deliberately and viciously targeted. And she talks about her reasons for resigning the governor’s office, a decision that engendered even more attacks, and was even opposed by her son Track (who was serving in Iraq at the time). Nevertheless, considering the enormous popular success of this book, and Palin’s recent rise in popularity, her decision was probably wise.
Chapter 6 is the shortest one – only about a dozen pages – though it is here she sketches her basic political philosophy. She calls it “commonsense conservatism.” She says it is a view influenced by her religious belief that man is not infinitely perfectible; government, therefore, must be limited in how much it tries to compel people to change, and should respect traditional structures that have helped people survive over the ages. She quotes Thomas Sowell on the “constrained” vision of governance. (The line of thought, how- ever, goes back to Edmund Burke and before.) She expresses support for the free market and a strong defense, but again, only very sketchily. Completely absent is a discussion of how she would resolve the tensions between traditionalist conservatism, classical liberalism, and strong-defense conservatism. I will return to this.
Now let’s look at the questions I had, going into the book. Regarding the first – were the attacks on Palin true? – The book’s answer is clearly No. The picture that emerges from these pages is that of an intelligent, deeply centered, exceptionally articulate person. In Chapters 5 and 6, especially, she exhaustively answers the many charges that were leveled against her during the campaign. She explains, for example, that the ethics complaints suddenly filed against her in Alaska were parti- san in origin and were later adjudicated to be without merit.
The book also answered my second question: why did she – why does she – arouse such passionate antipathy? The reason is twofold. To begin with, there were a number of things about her that offended cultural elites. She is a huntress, and speaks glowingly about hunting. (She says that there is room for all of Alaska’s animals, right next to the mashed potatoes.) This naturally antagonized animal rights activists and those of eco-faith- you know, the people who think that “Bambi” was a documentary. As a lifetime member of the NRA, she offends antigun people. She has a large family, and this offends many feminists and neo-Malthusian ecologists. She is an evangelical Christian, which offends many non-Christians and some Christians of other persuasions. She is pro-life, though her position is rather nuanced – for example, in her discus- sion of her feelings when she discovered that her child had Down’s syndrome, she expresses understanding of the reasons why many women are tempted to choose abortion.
Then there are her social origins. She doesn’t just feign working-class origins (all Democrats and many Republicans do that, even when – as with Obama and Biden – the effect is
risible), but she really is working-class. This arouses the hatred of the cultural elites. Intellectuals typically have con- tempt for working people, especially when they make a fetish of wanting to “help” them. Oh, she went to college, but certainly not one of the Ivy League schools. Worse yet, she is from rural America – and hell, not even fly-over country, but fly-past country!
Add to this the fact that she is good- looking, and has what appears to be a loving family. That frankly just makes
Palin vents her resentment that while Obama’s, Biden’s, and McCain’s children were considered off-limits, her children were deliberately and viciously targeted.
many people flat-out jealous. You can see this sort of petty envy when, for instance, unattractive columnists lambaste her as “Caribou Barbie,” or aged feminist harpies deride her as a “bimbo.”
But besides the features of her life and history that bug the elites, there has to be something else in play. Even after she lost, the attacks continued, indeed, escalated, with a concerted effort clearly being made to make sure she would never return. This leads me to believe that what is really driving the never-ending attack machine is a fear among her opponents that she has “if’ – that intangible, indefinable quality that only a few politicians have. “Charisma” is the often used term, and sister, she does have charisma. She can connect with average folk in a way few politicians can. When you hear (as I often do from fellow professors) sneers about what a fool she is, you can really smell the fear that she may wind up like Reagan: sneered at all the way to the White House, and then into the his- tory books as a successful president. It’s enough to give Bambi a heart attack.
As to my third question – does she intend to run for higher office? – though she plays coy, I am now of the opinion that she wants to be America’s Margaret Thatcher. She certainly mentions Thatcher with great reverence. I think she is well aware of political his- tory and realizes that both Reagan and Nixon came back from defeats to win the top prize. She already is taking a page out of both their books: after their defeats, each spent years tirelessly campaigning for other Republicans, and wound up with trunks full of IOUs that served them well.
My fourth question, however, has not been answered. Look, I can only speak for myself, but I care little for the cultural aspects of any candidate. I don’t much care whether the person is female or male, hunts or is a complete freaking vegan, is religious or not (I draw the line at violent cults), has worked in blue-collar jobs or was born to wealth, has had a good marriage or divorces from hell. I care mainly about what candidates intend to do. And after the last election, in which people voted for an affirmative-action candidate without asking exactly what kind of “change” he was hoping to implement – and now (if the polls are to be believed) are coming to regret their choice – I don’t think that voters will make the same mistake twice.
And here the book lets you down.
The dozen sketchy pages don’t help. Compare Reagan, a figure whom Palin mentions often in this regard. Twenty years of his talks, speeches, debates, and syndicated columns allowed him to set forth his positions in detail. When he ran for president, there was little doubt among either his supporters or his opponents about what he intended to do. Palin has yet to do that. How would she deal with the looming entitlement explosion? The war on terror? Immigration? Free trade? School choice? Union “card check” legislation? Really, she has only talked in detail about energy policy.
Take two cases in which her own book raises intriguing questions about her views. First, on page 29, she speaks well of Title IX, which mandated that colleges support women’s athletics. She was able to go to college partly on sports scholarships. She even mentions her friend Jessica Gavora’s book, “Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX” (Encounter Books, 2002). We can all agree that women should get equal opportunity. But Gavora argues in her book that because Title IX has been interpreted to call for affirmative action in sports, it has not produced more female athletes, but fewer male ones, with male athletic programs hav- ing to be shut down around the country. This prompts the question: where does Palin stand on affirmative action?
Second, consider Palin’s discussion of abortion. As I’ve said, I give her credit for being nuanced in her thinking. And she says she wouldn’t put women in jail for choosing abortion. Fair enough. But would she prohibit abortion, and, if so, how would she propose to enforce that ban?
In sum, Palin is articulate, deter- mined, gritty, popular, young, and – after the success of her book – now fairly well-heeled. If (as I suspect) she intends to run again for high office, she has a lot going for her. But my advice to her would be to take this opportunity to put forward a coherent, detailed world view. I suggest she use her train- ing as a journalist to start a weekly syndicated column, and tackle a wide range of specific issues. She should also go on frequent speaking tours, again spelling out her positions on a wide variety of topics. She has said she admires Reagan. Perhaps she ought to emulate him in this regard.
She should also consider running for the U.S. Senate in Alaska next year. Even after the coordinated attack against her, she still has a high favorability rating. A term in the Senate would burnish her resume, one would think, as well as define her political positions.