Going Rogue: An American Life

I thought, for an Easter Bank Holiday Morning, that I might try a little book reviewing before going to the gym.

Sarah Palin was actually quite a good governor of Alaska. She took on vested interests, was praised by Democrats and Republicans in a notoriously corrupt legislature for attacking mis-spending and crime, pushed through a monumentally complex gas project and faced down the legatees of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which took decades to resolve.

She also had a superb native political intelligence, a fine family and a very deep Christian patriotism of the sort not really seen in candidates for the Executive Branch since Jimmy Carter, although Bill Clinton knew his bible. I'm reminded from reading the Clinton Tapes, and Clinton's own autobiography, how much his intelligence dwelt on the sassier and sensual side of the Holy Tome, however. If Big Bill's motto was 'There is a perfectly good explanation for all of this', Sarah's is the slightly different, and more gritted, 'This is What You Are Supposed To Do'.

The Palin who emerges from her well-written autobiography is not by any means a mysterious or a complex figure. Raised a Catholic, she literally spells out what the priest says to the approval of herself in the pew (the word she fixed on was 'different'); she hunts and canoes beneath buckshot with her father, she has a fine family, she contemplates and dismisses abortions, and generally she does well. Her Husband, who comes through as almost a paragon of a frontiersman, is neither dominant nor domineering, and her passion for her children is marked. She comes across as perilously aware of what it is like to be working-class without being able to escape, which is never that good an idea in America's aspirational society. Oddly, in that she overlaps with Joe Biden, whose family started rich but who then got poor and who has been the Marcus Aurelius of the six pack, smoothed by sushi for his donors, for some years.

But the meat of the book is in itself fascinating. It shows how a political campaign can be lost, and conveys just how much of a scripted operation an American political battle is.

Most things in American life are. It is the ultimate Liberal Republic. The country with perhaps the most developed myth of the individual is the one where comedy teams have scripted jokes for shows named after single people for sixty years; where people like Colonel Edward House and Murray Chotiner battled behind the scenes, rarely stumbling blinking onto the main stage (like Van Buren and Robert Kennedy did). America, in a sense, invented the academic discipline of national security studies just as it invented political science classes, and really, its front men are often just that; the mass products of schools for salesmen imbued with Essence of Bismarck (tm and (c)), people who allow themselves to be, in return for adulation and vast amounts of money, directive ciphers. The most prestigious position in an American law school is, after all, Editor of the review, not author.

They're a little like Popes, these American leaders. To those lit only by the magic lanterns on the outside of the stage, Popes are infallible, but their only real infallibility is a constraint, not a power; they are guardians of the deposit of the faith and cannot change anything that a predecessor has ordained. They may play with the idea; Karol Wotiywa played with the idea of declaring Mary co-redeemer no doubt as Popes a thousand years ago toyed with ways around the Great Schism. But they can't, ultimately, change things too much. Down that way lies the unasked nightcap.

Palin joins a long list now of American leaders who were genuinely interested in changing the ways that political scientists have developed the American civic faith. On the campaign bus, she wanted to just call radio stations and talk to reporters without soundbites; as Governor, she used hotmail accounts, and responded personally to constituents. She remembers people from rallies, and wanted--mirabile dictu--to actually spend the vice-presidential debates saying what she thought, which of course she was sensible enough not to do for fear of the nuclear response from the headquarters of the McCain campaign. There is a funny tale of her staring across the floor before the debate at Joe Biden. She, prepped, was worrying about what to call him; he was doing stupid calisthenic stretches for the hamstring and neck. What did this woman think that she was doing--what the people would have expected?

If Palin comes across in her book as a little bit of a naif, her running mate (to whom she is scrupulously loyal and for whom she seemed to have as much affection as a reasonably well balanced adult could for a stranger with an inspiring story) comes across as what the British call a git, and weak to boot. Palin's pages can be read in various ways; the early stories of how she notices school vice-presidents and deputies often go ahead in life are unintentionally very funny, I'm sure. But there are precious few ways to read the McCain campaign managers' determination to keep Palin away from voters whilst lecturing her on nutrition and undermining her with sleazy tricks, just as there are few ways to read the wholly manufactured storm of ethical bullshit that made her later administration unworkable, after the defeat. The McCain people were sexists--well, so were the Kennedys--and hypocrites--well, where do I begin--but they were also gross incompetents and dickless too. Do real men play the silly games they played?

I found myself wondering where that rage against Palin that the campaign's headquarters clearly had came from when I read the text. Was it some displaced Oedipal fury against the candidate, McCain, who really should have been President in 2000 but after a searing defeat had morphed into Bob Dole? Was it the product of broken hearts after they realised that Joe Lieberman, their preferred candidate, could not run with McCain? Or was it rage against a woman in full who didn't play by their script easily and who appears to have been neither as pliable as, say, Liddy Dole or as much of a beast as, say, Carly Fiorina?

One forgets how much of a wolfpack the soi-disant right can be in the west sometimes. Margaret Thatcher, after all, was more or less eaten by her own side, Jeanne Kirkpatrick was buried in the United Nations and the less said about what happened to Margaret Chase Smith and Helen Gahagan Douglas the better. The only women who seem to have mastered how to deal with the right for any length of time in recognisably western traditions are Thatcher, Merkel and Gandhi. They are hardly an inspiring bunch; Dame Edna with a knife, a silent assassin (whom I admire) and a gaoler, banner and bomber of brilliance.

At the end of Going Rogue, Sarah Palin is left in Alaska clearly hoping for better things, part Anne Hutchinson, part Margaret Fuller, part Krupskaya, and part Sean Van Vocht. What I was left with, though, is a reflection on how much I agreed with her--and incidentally Winston Churchill--in that politics is vile, but how much I disagree that that in itself makes it somehow a terrible thing.

Palin is an anti-politician. She views 'politics' as a term of abuse, and resorts to casual sexism and narcissism when unsure of herself. In the midst of unspeakable stress, in the matter of her son's downs syndrome diagnosed in the womb, she writes letters from God in defiance of the proper hierarchies and rituals. All of this she celebrates as the product of a 'maverick' frontier nature, but what it actually is is terribly limiting. Her achievements in the book, and in life when you look at her record, come from when she acts with people, and negotiates, and employs the proper processes, if creatively; they fail when she sets herself against them or fails to appreciate what they are.

I suppose that life in Alaska, which is something no one else in the modern west would really approach, though people in the west of Ireland or Scandinavia might, informs this sort of personality. I don't understand it completely, though it is attractive. But, in the gangland sense of the national american stage, it does for her. The bitchiness, where it comes, about Katie Couric and Steve Schmidt, is less of a burden; in fact, it seems from just an objective look at the behaviour of both that they deserve far more than they get from La Palin. Oddly, I'd advise Sarah to read Hunter S Thompson's notes on Bobby Kennedy on that one. Forgiveness and understanding is all very well, but when the dark energies of an American national election are in play, Sarah, they did to you what you failed to do with them; you either direct or kill. People do not behave.

I wonder what will happen in 2012 as Palin tries again; if she tries again. She could be forgiven for retiring to the piles of money media outfits are offering, though given her legal bills I wouldn't blame her if she spent the rest of her life mining for gold. She was dropped into a national campaign far too early by the Republicans, in retrospect, someone who fitted a product description that did not include being a woman in full. That she wants to repeat the experience is, I suppose, some sort of testament to something.

There are increasing rumours that David Petraeus, the famous General, and in some though not all ways the anti-Palin, is more than just simply fishing in the 2012 waters. He would be a mighty, if disciplined, traditional, and military candidate. A sort of super-Romney, with added definition and backbone, but nonetheless a tall male anti-politician who had made it from a variety of rigidly ordered scaffolds. Palin-Petraeus would be a fascinating fight.

I just wonder what Todd would make of it all. There are some nice revealing touches about him in the book. Blue eyed and plain speaking, when he speaks at all, Palin recounts how he was the only sixteen year old around with a car when she was young. She clearly loves him deeply, and he works hard for his family when not doing mad things on snowbikes that frankly stun me. I smiled when I noticed that a hack of her e-mails revealed her as the protective mother, banning her daughter from accepting any sort of lift home from young men with cars. When she speaks of herself as an athlete who was bad at kissing but happier on the ball court, I think that I understand what she means. Todd seems to have loved her and pledged his life to her regardless, and their tale is quite a touching one.

Touching, but ultimately dispiriting. As my friend Martin Kelly points out, it is never really much of a surprise when middle class liberals and wannabes get power and systematically ridicule and exclude all other views as contrary to their groupthink. That is what liberals do, only they pretend to be individuals when doing it. Palin was an authentic believer in free enterprise, which presumably is why she so antagonised America's debt-socialized, subsidy-dependent corporations; a real believer in self determination, which is why the feds and federal political parties launched ethics investigations that almost left her broke; a democrat, which is why her party institutions hated her.

She was also, determinedly, a young girl on a street who didn't realise that she could not fly. I know; she proudly bore a standard that ruined the United States Treasury and that drew her own son into pointless wars of choice that may yet sap the republic. Sarah Palin, though, was a true believer. She knows--and we know--that God alone knows what she will do next.


Anonymous said…
Martin, you're a lovely writer and I particularly enjoy reading your opinions of this woman. Obviously, she's good looking and she hasd some endearing qualities. Equally, she has her limitations and no-one will shout louder than you if she gets anywhere near the presidency. You love her but not that much.
Martin Meenagh said…
I edited the above comment, since the writer wished me to. I'd assure her that I understand what she wrote, and I hope that she doesn't mind me doing so.
Martin Meenagh said…
I'd also suggest, given the way that Ms Palin reacted to media goading (which reminded me of the worst of Richard Nixon) that I agree. The fact is, though I don't think that she is the sort of Christian Patriot who should be let near nuclear weapons, Sarah Palin didn't get a fair go in 2008. She won't suffer too much for that, though, materially I suppose.
Martin Meenagh said…
Oh--I forgot--many thanks too, I am flattered!
An American said…
Thank you for Palin's book critique. From everything I've seen and read about Palin, I would say you've captured her quite well.

I lived in Alaska as a child and there is a different mindset than the rest of the US...they are much more independent than in the lower 48 and like it that way.

Being a wildlife conservationist, I have to say that Alaskans have never had a very good history of wildlife conservation...they are incredibly wasteful and think there will always be more, no matter how much wildlife and fish are harvested, year after year...which of course, we know can't be true. I disagree with Palin approving killing wolves from airplanes...hunters always blame predators for reduced populations of their prey...not overhunting or when I lived there with my RR Engineer father, the Alaskan RR killing hundreds of moose per winter on cleared railroad tracks.
In spite of Palin's lack of concern for good wildlife conservation...an unfortunate fault I find in many Conservatives,
I admire her for her other traits.
Martin Meenagh said…
Hi AA, hope all is well.

I think that I'm right in saying that Alaska was one of only two places ever to use nuclear bombs for civil engineering--or, rather, to allow them to be used (the other being in the USSR). I know that hunting is different from just shooting for sporting kills for Alaskans in that lots of them actually hunt to eat, (which I approve of), or to protect their property. For other hunters, I tend to agree with President Kennedy--that sort of thing will never be a sport until the animals get bulletproof jackets and a gun.
shockwaver said…
enjoy your blog when i visit from time to time.

there have been a few civil engineering uses of nuclear explosions by the US.
sedan, at the nevada test site was an excavation test. there is a big hole there that is still a tour favorite. gasbuggy?, in colorado i think, was to loosen natural gas from shale deposits. there was also something in carlsbad nm in a salt dome. i think it was to capture the heat from the blast in the salt but may have been a military experiment. i don't know.

all of these were back in the days of program plowshare (circa 1960) that explored the non-military uses of these devices.
Martin Meenagh said…
Many thanks Shockwaver, good to hear from you! I'll be on Cabbie's place later, see you there--and thanks for the info
Martin.....very well written piece.

My take on Palin....school board - yes; Governor - overachieving; Senator - more than qualified given the blowhards who reign there; Sec of Energy - great fit; President - Nah!

Although a conservative and I share many of her positions, she is also a neo and her Presidency would attract all of those war lovers who have brought us the last nine years of endless war. The neos are a cancer on the conservative movement and in reality are a tool of the military industrial complex.

Best regards, Patrick
Martin Meenagh said…
Thanks, Patrick. We are in agreement, I think.

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