exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

reading Going Rogue

Cover of "Going Rogue: An American Life"Cover of Going Rogue: An American Life

I spent a chunk of the Christmas break reading the Sarah Palin memoir Going Rogue: An American Life.

I don't know what to call this book, exactly. It sort of fits into the shameless political autobiography category, sort of fits into the political tell-all category. I don't read much of either genre: this year I read the Gary Aldrich Clinton-era hit piece Unlimited Access, which fits neatly into the second category, and that's it, so I don't have much to measure it against.

This is an honest-to-goodness four-hundred pager, with lots of self-contained paragraphs that link up to tell the Sarah Palin story, in more or less five acts:
  • Family history and life before she became mayor of Wasilla, Alaska
  • Time as mayor of Wasilla
  • Year-plus as Governor of Alaska
  • McCain-Palin 2008
  • Life after the campaign and a little future direction
It's a surprisingly dense read: it's written in fairly plain English, but with a fair amount of political jargon and the technical language of running a town or a state: a lot of talk about the nuts and bolts of town council politics and state budget negotiations, not to mention the technical details of running for Vice President of the United States. While a lot of these books get written on the basis of many interviews with the help of a ghostwriter, I got the impression that this was the distillation of a large number of journal entries: the narrative is at times disjointed, and there are lots of little vignettes that really contribute nothing to the overall story. I realize that Governor Palin has a lot to say about a lot of things to several different audiences, but I wondered repeatedly if the book could have done with some editing, perhaps to put the political stuff in political chapters, the family stuff in family chapters, etc.

I don't know if I'm in the target audience for this book; I suspect not. I am inclined to take the implied explanation in the last section of the book: she left the Alaska Governor's office owing a half-million dollars, and the advance for Going Rogue was a relatively painless way to cover those expenses and leave a little nest egg for the Palin family. I got the impression that the book was written as the end of something, rather than a bridge to the next phase of something. Governor Palin definitely sounds done with the whole sordid business by the end of the book.

I found this book painful to read. Palin's tone is earnest and occasionally miffed, and that wears thin pretty quickly, and frankly I didn't (and don't) care about all the scores she needed to settle and records she needed to straighten. The family stuff got old too: I realize that it's very difficult to juggle a career with the demands of being a single mom (Palin's husband works on the North Slope, more than a thousand miles from the Palin home in Wasilla), not to mention the twenty-four-hour-a-day demands of being the Governor of even a state with relatively simple politics like Alaska, but after a while the middle three children sort of blur together (the oldest, Track, is in the military, and the youngest, Trig, has Down Syndrome), and I just didn't care whether somebody was being mean to her kids, etc.

I started reading this book believing that Palin was woefully unqualified to be President of the United States, and the McCain campaign made a snap decision that thrust her into the spotlight. I still believe both of those things, but I'd be less disturbed than I was a year ago if she were appointed to a Cabinet position or were elected to Congress. She espouses a clearly-defined set of values, she's beholden to certain interests, etc. I tend to believe that a President needs to have served in an executive capacity, involved in policy-making, and either started and successfully run a small business or served in the military; preferably both of the latter. Palin is somewhat qualified on the first two counts, and not on either of the latter two counts. If she'd served out her term as Governor of Alaska and been re-elected I'd be more comfortable voting for her as Vice President. I'm not sure what she'd have to do for me to be comfortable voting for her as President. Maybe if she got the Republican nomination and she were running against John Kerry.

I realize that qualifications are sometimes a poor predictor of performance as President: Bill Clinton was poorly qualified, as was George W. Bush, while George Bush had the best resume in Washington, and Richard Nixon and Woodrow Wilson may have been the best-qualified of any candidates in the last century. Good Presidents tend to surround themselves with a mix of political operatives and visionaries, and of course have good luck.

I really didn't get a feel for who would be in a Palin Cabinet. She overplayed her outsider status during the 2008 campaign section of Going Rogue, repeatedly complaining about how she was part of "the B Team" while the campaign was being run by "headquarters." It isn't even clear to me who would be her Karl Rove or her Lee Atwater, much less who would be her Raul Emanuel. If anything, her story lent more credibility to the notion that the 2008 campaign had little or nothing to do with Sarah Palin per se.

I hate to say it, but I can't recommend this book as a stand-alone Sarah Palin biography; I wish someone in the McCain-Palin camp had written a less personal account I could have written first, even if it was a work of hagiography on the order of The Nixon Nobody Knows.

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