In case you’ve been out on the trap line with a busted sat-phone for the last few months, Sarah Palin has published her autobiography. The media hype has been spectacular and makes this Yukoner pine for the days of tape-delayed television in the North, back when Palin (it turns out) watched The Brady Bunch and Disney a week late just like we did.
Going Rogue: An American Life is easy to mock. Parodies are already available online. But Sarah Palin continues to fascinate, and people who underestimate her – from the Anchorage Cougars basketball team to former Governor Murkowski – have so far tended to end up face down in the snow with the smell of Palin two-stroke exhaust in the air and her sled tracks on their backs.
The book begins with a series of charming scenes from Palin’s life in Alaska. It is a brisk read. Palin and her ghostwriter Lynn Vincent flit from winning the Alaskan high school basketball championship (on a badly twisted ankle) to Aristotle quotes (on being criticized), and from political philosophy (in favour of allowing Bible study sessions in Wasilla public schools) to personal revelations (“I love meat.”).
At first this makes the book seem more like a concatenation of Twitter posts than a traditional political memoir, turning internet surfing into something heavy enough to hold down the butcher’s paper as you wrap the moose steaks. But the narrative steadies as Palin describes her political path from PTA to vice-presidential candidate.
As literature, Going Rogue doesn’t threaten Winston Churchill’s Nobel Prize-winning memoirs. Nor does it match Alan Clark’s for wit and pure malice, although Palin obviously enjoys recounting how the state senator who complained about her daughter bringing the First Dog to the State House ended up getting “busted by the FBI and convicted on federal corruption charges.”
She also skewers some of her own staff, such as the legislative director she later fired. He is described playing Brickbreaker on his Blackberry during important meetings and wandering the halls with his shirt tail protruding from his fly.
Nor will the reader find deep political thinking in Going Rogue. Palin is passionate about America, Alaska, the “people,” the military, guns, Christianity and small government. She is against “elites” and corruption. But we knew that before reading the book. She seems unable to understand those that disagree with her, tagging them with labels such as “old boy” or “Birkenstock-and-granola.”
But Palin’s account of her Alaskan political career is illuminating, particularly to northern readers familiar with politics in small communities. She describes the body language of the Wasilla city department heads as she takes office as mayor despite their barely concealed campaign against her, and then recounts her now infamous battles with the head librarian and police chief.
She emerges as a courageous politician when she resigns publicly as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, challenging the Republican governor who appointed her and the party establishment over their cozy relationship with Big Oil. She is vindicated when many of her senior Republican critics are caught on FBI surveillance video in Suite 604 at the Westmark Baranof.
Her governorship starts promisingly. She clearly relishes battling Big Oil and the Corrupt Bastards Club, as she calls Alaska’s entrenched lobbyists and self-serving politicians. With bipartisan support, she pushes through the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, ethics reform and even budget cuts. All are major legislative accomplishments and big changes to the status quo, all the more remarkable as she juggles a complex and fast-moving personal life.
Her husband Todd works on the North Slope, her doctor tells her that her child will be born with Down’s syndrome and her sister becomes entangled in Taser-gate. Her children are threatened at school, and have to worry about things like whether they can accept a Gatorade from a soccer teammate’s mother who also happens to be a lobbyist.
Then we get on to the fun of the vice-presidential campaign and hear Palin’s counterattack against the leaks that have kept so many political chat shows in business.
Reaction to the book in Alaska appears to be mixed, at least judging by the amount of eye-rolling this columnist encountered while carrying his copy of Going Rogue around Juneau last weekend.
It started at the cash register in Fred Meyer’s where the clerk, noting the 40 per cent discount, said, “Shows what we think of her.”
Seeking a pro-Palin point of view, we interviewed a Christian Alaskan home-schooling mom who has a signed photo of George Bush in her home. But she just sighed and criticized Palin for charging her children’s travel to the state and for her abrupt mid-term resignation as governor, observing that “she’s probably more popular down south than in Alaska.”
Despite a few entertaining anecdotes, Going Rogue is mediocre even by the low standards of the political memoir. And there are better choices if you’re interested in American politics. The book is unlikely to change any minds among the anti-Palin crowd.
But that’s not the point. Going Rogue is really about Palin’s possible run for the presidency in 2012. It speaks to Palin’s million-plus friends on Facebook and her supporters across the United States.
It slickly lets them into her life and not-so-subtly counterattacks the criticisms that have been showered on her in the media. How could she be accused of misusing government funds when her daughter wouldn’t even accept Gatorade from a lobbyist soccer-mom? How can she be accused of not reading, when she refers to Animal Farm and Robert Service (even if she does refer to him as an “Alaska writer”)?
Will American voters like the book enough to vote for her in 2012? Or will they listen to voices like Newsweek, which called her “Bad news for the GOP – and everybody else, too”?
Going Rogue reveals a politician with courage, energy and a feel for populist hot buttons, but also a long record of questionable judgment and alarming (at least to this columnist) political beliefs.
We have to hope that Providence, which she refers to throughout the book, steers her to her own show on Fox and not the White House.
Going Rogue: An American Lifeby Sarah Palin $34.99 from Harper Collins.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book, Game On Yukon!, was just launched.