Monday, November 16, 2009

'Rogue' gain

Bill Simmons’ voluminous “The Book of Basketball” reached No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list last week. It’s expected to bow out of that top spot this week, yielding to “Going Rogue,” Sarah Palin’s long-awaited 432-page, five-chapter memoir of “An American Life.”

But even before Palin’s book drops officially on Tuesday, some people who were insiders with the McCain 2008 presidential campaign are stating plainly that Palin’s book belongs on the shelf for Modern Fiction instead.

The book is part of the rehabilitation of the political chameleon, lightning rod and queen of the malapropism known as Sarah Louise Palin. She appeared on “Oprah” on Monday, in an interview taped previously. And get the TiVo ready: Palin and family will be featured in a five-part series of interviews with Barbara Walters on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” starting Tuesday. Other ABC properties, from “World News” to “20/20” will also feature Palin interviews.

But it’s the book that, ideally anyway, should offer the least evanescent, most intellectually developed sense of who Sarah Palin is.

The book’s promo blurbs practically gush: “In this eagerly anticipated memoir, Palin paints an intimate portrait of growing up in the wilds of Alaska; meeting her lifelong love; her decision to enter politics; the importance of faith and family; and the unique joys and trials of life as a high-profile working mother. She also opens up for the first time about the 2008 presidential race, providing a rare, mom's-eye view of high-stakes national politics ....

“Going Rogue traces one ordinary citizen's extraordinary journey and imparts Palin's vision of a way forward for America and her unfailing hope in the greatest nation on earth.”

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Other parties with less invested in the public’s reaction have already been less charitable.

On Saturday, in a pre-publication review of the book, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times calls it “part cagey spin, part earnest autobiography, part payback hit job.”

“The most sustained and vehement barbs in this book are directed not at Democrats or liberals or the news media, but at the McCain campaign," Kakutani writes. "The very campaign that plucked her out of Alaska, anointed her the Republican vice-presidential nominee and made her one of the most talked about women on the planet — someone who could command a reported $5 million advance for writing this book.”

Maybe without meaning to, Palin apparently confirms what many analysts, political observers, bloggers and others within and outside the punditburo had long suspected about the flailing McCain operation.

“Ms. Palin depicts the McCain campaign as overscripted, defeatist, disorganized and dunderheaded — slow to shift focus from the Iraq war to the cratering economy, insufficiently tough on Mr. Obama and contradictory in its media strategy.”

“[T]he McCain campaign … often feels like a desperate and cynical operation, willing to make a risky Hail Mary pass to try to score a tactical win, instead of making a considered judgment as to who might be genuinely qualified to sit a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.”

For their part, the former McCain campaign aides have responded dismissively to Palin’s assertions. Ex-McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt was quoted on Politico.com saying that charges about him were “all fiction.”

John Weaver, a former McCain strategist, has issues with Palin’s recall, too.

“Sarah Palin reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in the movie 'Harvey,' complete with imaginary conversations. All books like these are revisionist and self-serving, by definition,” Weaver wrote in an email to Politico. “But the score-settling by someone who wants to be considered a serious national player is petty and pathetic.”

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Even without having read it, people are likely to come to some unflattering conclusions about the book and its author from the excerpts already leaked. In one chapter, Palin explains what justifies her claim of simpatico with working-class America.

“We know what it’s like to be on a tight budget and wonder how we’re going to pay for our own health care, let alone college tuition,” Palin writes. “We know what it’s like to work union jobs, to be blue-collar, white-collar, to have our kids in public schools. We felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans, could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.”

“Ordinary Americans” on “a tight budget”? Five million dollars’ll change that in a hurry (assuming the Palins didn’t already make ends meet handsomely on her former $125,000 annual salary as governor of Alaska, and husband Todd’s income from a commercial fishing business and his oil-field work with BP Alaska, and a variety of other interests). Joe Six-Pack never had it so good, and never will.

And then there’s the Palin prose itself. Here’s a nugget from the book’s first paragraph: “I breathed in an autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.”

Conan, cue the speech-writing ape. Or maybe William Shatner.



Maybe the most dramatic reflection of the anticipated impact of this book comes from another one. OR Books has published “Going Rouge,” a free-wheeling collection of essays edited by two senior editors at The Nation and written by Amy Alexander, Joe Conason, Katha Pollitt, Frank Rich, Gloria Steinem, Katrina vanden Heuvel and other progressive writers.

According to OR’s publicity, the “Rouge” book “examines Palin’s quirky origins in Wasilla, Alaska, her spectacular rise to the effective leadership of the Republican Party, and the nightmarish prospect of her continuing to dominate the nation’s political scene.”

One excerpt from the introduction gives Palin’s peculiar passive-aggressive brand of right-wing politics a name, and an explanation:

Palinism “works by draping hard-right policy in a winning personal story and just-folks rhetoric, delicately masking the extremism of her true positions and broadening the audience for them. Its genius rests in its ability to magically absorb inconvenient facts and mutually contradictory realities into an unassailable personal narrative.”

At least that’s one explanation for her appeal. We’ll hear of others soon enough, now that there’s not one but two primers, two blueprints for experiencing the Palin phenomenon.

And despite differences in approaching their subject, it’s what both books have in common that’s frighteningly undeniable: a tacit admission that Sarah Palin will be with us for the foreseeable, not so much transcending politics as defining it.

Image credits: "Going Rogue" cover: HarperCollins. Palin with McCain campaign: Rachel Dickson, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. "Going Rouge" cover: OR Books.

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