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Book review: ‘America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag’ by Sarah Palin

There really is nothing quite like a gifted politician on the make, but even in such fast company, Sarah Palin really has to rank as a force of nature.

Along with her ally-of-convenience, the Fox News personality Glenn Beck — certainly the most gifted electronic demagogue since Father Coughlin in the 1930s — she has adroitly used the full panoply of contemporary media to position herself as a leader of the populist surge reshaping Republican politics. Like Beck, Palin is a multiplatforming powerhouse, a presence on cable news, reality television, on social media — Facebook and Twitter — and, more traditionally, in book publishing.

“America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag” is Palin’s second book in as many years and more overtly political than last year’s autobiographical “Going Rogue.” If it isn’t an outright declaration of her intention to seek the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination, it’s a clear warning to the other prospective candidates that they’ll have to reckon with her and those she counts as her Americans on their way to the party’s endorsement.

Two interesting things stand out in this latest manifesto (and, make no mistake, that’s what it is): One is that Palin clearly has widened her circle of advisors, at least when it comes to her uncredited ghost writers, who have stitched a veritable laundry list of current conservative preoccupations into “America by Heart,” along with extended quotations from an array of figures, including Margaret Thatcher, James Q. Wilson, poet Karl Shapiro and all the requisite Founders and Framers (De Tocqueville too, of course). The other — and perhaps most instructive — thing to be gleaned from this book is just how shrewd a politician Palin is. Professional political consultants sometimes like to talk about a candidate’s “RLC quotient.” The acronym stands for Rat-Like Cunning — and it’s meant to be a compliment indicating not only a deep instinctual shrewdness but also a willingness to fight ruthlessly when forced.

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Off the evidence in “America by Heart,” Palin’s RLC quotient is off the charts.

Thus, not unexpectedly, this book begins with the former Alaskan governor speaking to a “tea party” rally in — where else? — Boston. These, she assures us repeatedly, are the real Americans and not the angry “hillbillies” allegedly portrayed by the mainstream media. The media, by the way, are one of the recurring demons in this media-savvy book, along with progressives, liberals, academics and all sorts of look-down-their-noses-at-the-rest-of-us “elites.” Like Beck, though, Palin is wonderfully adept at escaping any responsibility for what’s essentially a Manichaean view of our society — one that divides real, hard-working, family-loving, religious Americans from those who … well, aren’t those things.

Thus, she doesn’t bat a professionally mascaraed eyelash while decrying the “shameful tendency on the left not simply to declare their opponents wrong, but to declare them evil. Conservatives and liberals don’t have honest policy disagreements, this strategy says, conservatives are just bad people.”

Right.

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One of the quirky oddities of this volume is the frequent citation of relatively obscure Chicago School economists, marginal conservative historians and obscure political sources along with television shows and lots of films (the latter, one suspects, to indicate a true populist touch). Thus, two of Palin’s touchstones are Calvin Coolidge and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” A long digression into the phony debate over American exceptionalism somehow reminds her of the animated film “The Incredibles.”

According to Palin, “ordinary Americans are tired of [ President] Obama’s apology tour and of hearing about what a weak country America is from the left-wing and journalists. That’s why America yearns for … leaders who are not embarrassed by America, who see our country’s flaws but also its greatness; leaders who are proud to be Americans, and are proud of her every day, not just when their chosen ones are winning elections.” The latter, of course, is a not-very-subtle put-down of Michelle Obama’s off-handed remark about being proud of the country after her husband’s election.

Like Beck, Palin is bent on educating her readers on the “real” American history that’s being kept from them. Thus, during one of her discussions of Coolidge’s suppressed legacy, the author muses, “is it just a coincidence that one of the presidents who most appreciated our founding principles is one of the least celebrated by the academic elite?” Actually, it’s because he was a worse-than-mediocre president, but why argue?

There’s also an extended discussion of the intricacies of the original Constitutional provision that, for the purposes of congressional representation, slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person. Somehow, Palin and her collaborators manage to tease that historical grotesquerie into the Framers’ affirmation of African Americans’ personhood, rather than the Southern delegates’ desire to maintain political dominance in the new republic.

Along with the bewildering range of citations, digressions like that leave one wondering whether we’re really meant to believe that Palin recently has been rereading Whittaker Chambers; or did she recently “come across” the letters of 18th century immigrant farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur? One simply supposes that the Alaskan winter leaves time for more than ice fishing or snowmobiling.

Irony apparently doesn’t get shelf-space in Palin’s freshly stocked intellectual arsenal. At one point during an extended critique of contemporary feminism, she contrasts it with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s famous Seneca Falls declaration of 1848, writing, “Can you imagine a contemporary feminist invoking the laws of nature and of nature’s God?” Somehow, it escapes the author that those sentiments, part — as she acknowledges — of the Declaration of Independence, were an expression of the Deism that prevailed among the Founders, a sentiment utterly at odds with the conventional, essentially evangelical “faith” she cites elsewhere in the book.

In Palin’s Manichaean America, “property rights are routinely violated,” abortion “is the state-sanctioned killing of innocent life,” and “it’s no accident that progressives view the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as obstacles to be mowed down or maneuvered around to create a bigger government. After all, their name itself, progressives, implies that there is something defective or at least inadequate about America. Progressives exist, their name implies, to ‘correct’ America, to ‘correct’ all the rest of us in the process.”

When Palin resigned as governor of Alaska, a number of experienced pundits firmly opined that she’d committed political suicide. They didn’t reckon on her shrewd political instincts, which were telling her — correctly, as it turns out — how much easier it would be to seek the presidency as the unaccountable symbol of a populist upwelling than it would be from the statehouse.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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