AMERICAN REVIEW, 2010
Going Rogue: An American Life
Harper Collins, US$ 28.99, 413 pp.
The poetry of Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell noted, is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. So are the writings of Sarah Palin. The former governor of Alaska, former vice-presidential candidate and great populist hope of the American right tends to inspire derision that is manifestly patronizing and misogynistic. Such is often the fate of charismatic female politicians from small towns, as Margaret Thatcher well knew.
Palin is a mother of five, ripe, fertile, and beautiful. Standing alone on the podium at the Republican convention, all the world’s eyes on her, swaying slightly on her high heels, blinking in the bright lights, her glasses and the myopia they suggest hinting at a vulnerability beneath all that exuberant energy, she inspired in observers a sympathetic tenderness, like an adolescent gymnast at the Olympics attempting a particularly difficult landing after a daring vault. When a beautiful mother is bullied, it is every man’s normal instinct to protect her and every normal woman’s instinct to identify with her. Decent people cannot but feel disgust with those who speculate that her son Trig is not truly her son but some kind of political prop. Nothing could be more supercilious and mean-spirited than to mock a woman’s mentally handicapped child.
No one wishes to be in the company of snobs, so it is uncomfortable to report the plain truth about Sarah Palin’s autobiography—it is ridiculous and it is awful. The sniggering pansy-leftists were wrong about Kipling, but right about this book. Kipling’s bad poetry will be remembered, Orwell wrote, long after those who mocked him are forgotten, because the verse he wrote was good bad poetry. Palin’s, by contrast, is bad bad prose.
I have no quarrel with the values Palin claims to hold dear. I am all for fiscal conservatism, hawkish defense, free markets, tax cuts, and patriotism. God knows I am in favor of God. Nor am I much perturbed by what her critics claim are the book’s many strange factual contradictions and lies. All adults know, after all, that a serious forensic exploration of Palin’s political record would not begin in the “autobiography” section of the bookstore.
My objection is otherwise: The book is artless; it is juvenile; it is dull; it is vulgar, and it is above all phony. It does not seduce; it is not a guilty pleasure; it does not succeed in conveying universal experiences or emotions; it does not elevate. No character in it comes alive. Indeed it is so awful that it is almost impossible to find a single sentence in it that is not awful.
No one involved in creating this memoir felt it necessary to make her words memorable. Nor did they make her sound wise, self-aware, thoughtful, adult, educated, or even plausible, as a fictional character—no less a world leader, which one would think a priority. The book is a series of bromides, one after the other. Alaska is full of “pristine wildlife and beauty.” Voters were “clamoring for us to take the gloves off.” The night was “special.” The night was “really nice.” We were “keeping it real.” We were having “the time of our lives.” Our families provided “incredible support.” Losing the election was “very, very disappointing.” Bad news was a “slap in the face.” She’d “do it again in a heartbeat.” When the clichés are not vapid, they are vulgar—ethics charges against her were “bass-ackwards”—but they are still clichés. The emotional tone is repeatedly off: Again and again she is “humbled” by cheering crowds. No one, but no one, is humbled by a cheering crowd. Real people are humbled by humiliation.
All the classic high-school freshman expository writing mistakes are in evidence: telling, not showing, explaining too much, getting the voice wrong, an adolescent resort to exclamation points. We are occasionally interrupted by images of Palin incompatible with any woman’s dignity, no less that of a putative commander-in-chief: Why would we wish to hear that she was “sweating like crazy?” The most memorable line in the book is the one the reader is most eager to forget. “I loved my dad’s straight talk on the subject when he had to respond to one Truther. ‘I know Trig is hers, dumbass. I was there when he popped out!’”
That the book was not written by her has not been concealed, and this itself is a curiosity worth remark. It is strange that it has become acceptable for politicians to acknowledge without shame that they do not—and by implication cannot—write their own books. It was ghostwritten in large part by a San Diego journalist named Lynn Vincent, and presumably subjected to multiple revisions by editors and handlers who determined that a book of this tone would appeal to contemporary voters and readers. If they are right, something has happened to American culture that is even more worrying than a loss of literary discernment, and that is a loss of irritation with the sound of clichés, which in turn represents a loss of emotional shrewdness. The very qualities in this book that should give readers the creeps are those intended to persuade them that Sarah Palin is unusually forthright.
The same sense of puzzlement is prompted by watching Tiger Woods apologize for his hooker habit. Viewers should be falling off their chairs sniggering at this exercise. To anyone whose ear is even remotely attuned to emotion, it is obvious that the real purpose of the clichés he uses is not to express authentic sentiment but to hide as far as possible from it. Yet spectacles such as Tiger Woods’ apologies and Sarah Palin’s apologia—both of which obviously could not be more empty—seem paradoxically to persuade certain members of the public that they have genuinely achieved intimacy with them. The concern is not so much that this represents bad taste as that it represents a deep cultural confusion about the sound of an honest voice. This cannot be a healthy sign.
And why, indeed, should anyone wish to feel intimacy with a politician? The collective American desire for an “authentic” president, as opposed to a presidential president, is more than passing strange, seemingly the expression in psychic terms of a primitive but very powerful form of radical egalitarianism—a kind of communism of the soul. What is primitive communism, after all, whether in the Gospels or the Soviet Union, but a commitment to the thesis that no one is any better than anyone else, and no one should aspire to be? Yet it is self-evidently true that anyone who would be good at being the president of the United States would be vastly more impressive than an average person. The healthy desire for one’s leaders to empathize with ordinary people has been conflated with the desire for a leader who is an ordinary person. No sensible patient would choose his cardiovascular surgeon on the grounds that the man seemed like an average, forgetful klutz. When it comes to certain jobs, most would acknowledge they are best done by those on the very far side of the Bell Curve.
Yet even on her own terms—“being real”—the Sarah Palin of this book fails. “Real” is now habitually conflated with “vulgar,” and signified by the least real of things—a cliché. And if clichés must be used, why are they not the clichés that enoble, but the clichés of weightlifting? “We were pumped!” “My family and I were still pumped!” Did no one notice that this line—“I was ready for a minute to breath a minute and drink an icy Diet Dr. Pepper”—sounds like sponsored product placement?
With all the resources available to the Palin camp, surely they could have found someone to write dialogue more accomplished than this:
“It’s still best for the state that you’re not there,” Todd encouraged me. “The people who are ticked off just cannot stand that with all the darts and arrows they throw, your team is still making progress. Do you kind of get a kick out of that aspect of this?” He grinned.
“Well, hmmm … what a perspective,” I said, not grinning. “Hey, just keep reminding me of Grandpa Sheeran’s favorite Latin tag: Illegitimi non carburundum,” which, loosely translated, means “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Who talks like this? Is it credible that this character, as drawn, would have a grandfather so partial to Latin quotations as to have a favorite? And if one is going to have this family speak in literary allusions, why not get them right? The phrase—the most famous in the literary history of the English language—is slings and arrows. It is neither trivial nor elitist to point this out. No one among the team that wrote, read, and vetted this book thought it important to suggest the putative first family’s familiarity with the most triumphant cultural achievements of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Why not?
It may be true that the media establishment would loathe Palin no matter how she comported herself because they’re socialist sexist snobs. But a great many loathsome white supremacists were persuaded that OJ did it, too, and that doesn’t mean he was innocent.
It is unwholesome for educated people to be so blackmailed by the fear of sounding cosmopolitan and elitist that we cannot say what is manifestly obvious. This is a trashy, grating, badly-written book, and none but a reader whose contempt for Leftist pantywaists has crippled his faculties of judgment would fail immediately to see it and say it.