A particularly shrewd political analyst once remarked that Ronald Reagan’s great strength as a candidate was that he was “a sincere phony.” In the world of electoral realpolitik, that’s a compliment.
What the analyst meant was that Reagan had the ability to convince himself that he actually held expedient views he’d never previously entertained and that belief, in turn, allowed him to speak of them with utter conviction. Thus, the governor who’d signed the nation’s most permissive abortion-rights statute became the resolutely pro-life president.
Sarah Palin’s autobiography -- “Going Rogue: An American Life” -- suggests that while she may be overreaching when she aspires to the Great Communicator’s mantle as leader of the conservative movement, she may well be able to claim his facility for convenient sincerity.
Take, for example, the matter of this book’s authorship. It’s customary for politicians and celebrities to collaborate with a professional writer on books like this, particularly when they’re produced on a tight deadline, as “Going Rogue” was, and the publisher has a multimillion-dollar advance on the table, as Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins reportedly does with this volume. However, the name of Palin’s collaborator -- the evangelical Christian writer and pro-life activist Lynn Vincent -- doesn’t appear on the cover of “Going Rogue.” Collaborators sometimes trade such credits for higher fees, but their names usually appear prominently in the acknowledgments.
Palin’s first acknowledgment goes to . . . herself: “I’m very glad this writing exercise is over. I love to write, but not about myself. I’m thankful now to have kept journals about Alaska and my friends and family ever since I was a little girl. That practice allowed an orderly compilation over the past weeks and let me summarily wrap up at least some of my life so far . . . “
Three paragraphs later, after she’s thanked her lawyer Robert Barnett and five HarperCollins executives and editors, Vincent’s name is mentioned with several others. (At least she made it before the thanks to flight attendants, “Big Dipper Construction” and “everyone who values good customer service.”)
It’s an interesting reticence because Vincent’s previous books include a biography of Gen. William Boykin, who created a firestorm for injecting too much Christianity into the war on terror, and an account of the Democratic Party designed to show that its “true history” is “a tale of dishonesty, crime and corruption.” Vincent reportedly was selected for this job in large part for her ability to connect with evangelical Christians, and they won’t be disappointed to find that Palin discerns “God’s hand” and a divine purpose in nearly every turn of her life, including her tenure in Wasilla, Alaska’s city hall.
Actually, the hand most obviously working throughout “Going Rogue” is Vincent’s. The narrative is sprinkled with literary and philosophical references that one somehow doubts sprang from the copious pages of Palin’s diaries, including the role of Blaise Pascal’s philosophy in her girlhood conversion from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism. Similarly, the opening sequence includes a visit to the Right to Life booth at the Alaska State Fair, where one of the items on sale is a poster featuring Palin’s daughter Piper dressed as an angel. (It’s hard to recall any politicians in recent memory who have used their children as props quite as frequently as Palin.)
More than half the book deals with Palin’s life before the last presidential campaign, so there’s a lot of winter, guns, fish guts, long hours at the nets under the midnight sun and a great deal about Palin’s fondness for meat, particularly caribou and moose. There’s even a photo of her father teaching her to skin a harbor seal, an activity the caption informs is now forbidden for all but native peoples under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Ah, for the good old days.
When he ran a London restaurant, the late chef Keith Floyd used to keep a bowl of split shot in the kitchen, and would drop a couple lead pellets into the game birds he sent out. It gave his patrons a kind of thrill to discover them on their plates, evoking as they did a shivering, slight suggestion of the hunt. “Going Rogue” has more than a few pieces of rhetorical split shot scattered through the narrative.
Palin is genuinely convincing in her admiration for Reagan, but one of the things she misses about his appeal was the utter absence of resentment from his persona. This book, on the other hand, fairly seethes with resentment, particularly in the more than 100 pages devoted to the McCain-Palin campaign. Most of the news coverage has centered on her anger toward the way she was handled by both the campaign staff and the news media, apart from Fox News, of course. (The book’s title was borrowed from a campaign strategist’s disparaging description of Palin’s refusal to remain on message.) There are lots of charges here, but the McCain aides have been firing back -- something a moose never does -- and they seem to have the e-mails and other documentation to back up their versions of events.
“Going Rogue” is so obviously a campaign biography that a reader comes away trying to figure out what he thinks of Palin’s presidential chances rather than what he thinks of her. In that context, the constructive example is not Reagan, but Jesse Jackson. For years the clergyman and civil rights activist spoke to the most viscerally committed factions of the Democratic base in a way no other political figure did. Palin appears to be something similar -- a figure from the political periphery who nonetheless speaks to her party’s passionate heart. That enthusiasm notwithstanding, the polls agree that an overwhelming majority of Americans -- including a majority of Republicans -- believe she’s not qualified to be chief executive. By contrast, strong pluralities of self-described GOP loyalists think Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are solid presidential timber. But they’re both kidding themselves if they don’t realize they’ll have to get past Palin in the primaries. (How many major book tours visit Iowa and Michigan?)
That’s where the Jackson analogy attains: The same veteran analyst who made that remark about Reagan’s sincerity used to say to me, “Jackson’s strength is his base. The reason Jackson never will be elected is his base.” The same may be true of Palin because her connection to her base is grounded in a common set of resentments and grievances, a sense of being always on the defensive. All that runs through “Going Rogue” like a thread. Reagan, on the other hand, connected to people with a kind of open-handed optimism that was convincing because it really was what he felt. Palin is right when she says “he had steel spine.” What she misses is that it was flexible steel.
For that reason, first Hollywood and then history made Ronald Reagan a leading man. The ambitious politician who emerges from the pages of “Going Rogue” seems destined for a career of character roles.