I’ve gone on a weird Sarah Palin research bender the past couple of weeks. I’m not sure what sent me on this knowledge quest: maybe the bus tour, maybe the bells she rang to alert the British that Americans like guns, maybe the feature length film about herself that she didn’t really commission because when she suggested commissioning it, the director just offered to make it gratis. Who knows. Whatever the case, I have read about two and a half books on Sarah Palin in the past few weeks and I’m summoning up the intestinal fortitude to read her first memoir. You know. Because I like fantasy novels.
My first foray into Palin-topia was to finally finish Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halerpin. This was a best seller last summer and chroncicles the whole 2008 election, dishing dirt on everyone involved. I read all the parts about the Democrats last year and, by the end, found myself so exhausted by the douchery of the Edwards camp, the defensiveness in the Clinton camp and the laser-like focus of Obama himself, that I couldn’t keep going. I let the book gather dust for a year and finally picked it up again this spring. By then, most of the revelations weren’t too revelatory because they all got hashed out in the media. The authors demonstrate that John McCain isn’t big on rules, he likes flying by the seat of his pants, and Sarah Palin was his VP pick because he couldn’t have Joe Lieberman. Palin looked good on paper and in her initial interviews with his staff. That his staff never got past those initial interviews until the deed was done was the problem. The Palin of this book was a moody diva who wouldn’t prepare well enough to do well in unscripted appearances and didn’t handle her failure to do well in unscripted appearances with any grace of reflection. She, instead, pouted. She was at her best delivering speeches sculpted by professional political flacks and receiving adoration from the screaming crowds who thronged to her appearances. She is also apparently wildly uneducated about most topics that don’t pertain to Alaska and unwilling to learn more about them, but we had all guessed that already by now.
The “what” of Palin being abundantly clear, even without Game Change’s detailing of 2008, I wanted to get into the “why” of Palin. Frank Bailey’s memoir Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin is a book that starts to fit the bill but doesn’t make it all the way there. Bailey is a former Palin aide who started with her when she was a dark horse candidate for governor pinching pennies to pay for yard signs and painting her own campaign headquarters. He saw the possibility of true reforms in her stated agenda battling corruption and social conservatism and he was attracted to her deep religious faith. He stuck with her on her bumpy ride through Juneau and was best known as the “Troopergate guy”, the one who made a lot of the calls to Alaskan government insiders about getting Palin’s former brother-in-law fired from his job as an Alaska Trooper and he was a witness to many apparent hypocrisies in Palin’s operating style. He eventually left Palin’s circle, thoroughly disillusioned with her.
Bailey’s book is a record of Palin’s gubernatorial years and provides some interesting insights into Sarah’s flaws as an executive and Todd Palin’s role in governing the state of Alaska. He also reveals some of the shadier aspects of Palin’s operation, namely supportive letters that her staff would write and ask volunteers and supporters to sign before submitting them as letters to the editor of Alaska papers. They also engaged in vote-drives to skew online polls in Palin’s favor and they spent a lot of time strategizing about how to refute negative claims about Palin from bloggers, reporters, and radio hosts. What they didn’t do was govern, if Bailey’s account is accurate. Palin got the office she sought and was stymied when she found that being governor wasn’t a matter of telling people what to do and having them do it. So instead of dealing with the hard work of leadership, compromise, and execution of policy, she polished her image and drew attention to herself in order to get on the VP short list. And in the process of gaining recognition by spending all of her efforts on image, she left a lot of her loyal staff to clean up the messes they created at her and Todd’s behest.
The weakness of Bailey’s book is that it’s a mea culpa and told from only one perspective. Bailey is seeking forgiveness for his role in unleashing Palin on the nation and asks for it by telling his own earnest story. He doesn’t share a lot of insights into the characters of the others around him or the macro-political forces at play. This is Bailey’s story, and his story alone. It is a compelling story but not a complete one.
The Lies of Sarah Palin by Geoffrey Dunn does a better job of telling the story of Palin and her trajectory from small town basketball player to national phenomenon. It’s a journalistic look at her history, with interviews from her classmates, colleagues, erstwhile friends, political adversaries, and many of the McCain campaign staff who worked with her. It’s rife with juicy tidbits like that Palin’s mother got pregnant before marriage, Palin herself got pregnant before marriage, just as Bristol eventually got pregnant before marriage. It delves into Palin’s relationship with her father and his impact on her as a parent and a coach. It talks about her high school years and the cult of personality that surrounded her among her church friends and the social costs to those who were outside of that sphere. It also includes a gut-twisting recounting of an early conversation with her campaign manager when she was running for mayor of Wasilla in which Palin said straight up that she wanted to be President.
Lies confirms a lot of Bailey’s assertions about the Palin image machine and her drive to make people see her as she wishes to be seen, regardless of whether or not that’s any reflection of reality. She tells a story of who she is, what she is, and expects everyone to believe it even when the facts are absurdly out of line with her version. For example, she contended that Todd lived a subsistence life in Dillingham when he wasn’t working the oil slopes even though that wasn’t the case, had never been the case, and the falsity of it could be easily verified. It was a pointless lie, an attempt at Reagan-esque personalization of a situation where she falsely cast Todd in the lead role.
What none of these books gets to is the bigger question that I have about Sarah Palin: why is she in politics? Palin is no policy wonk. She’s not studious or even especially curious about the world, past or present. She has no history of the kind of volunteerism that often propels people to take action on behalf of some segment of the population. She’s not of a true missionary bent and doesn’t have a record of work with church-based community activities. She brings no industry expertise to bear. There is no turning point in her personal history where events illuminate a need for her to roll up her sleeves and get to work; rather she was recruited to run for city council and did it at someone else’s behest, on a platform of their making. From that point of entry, she kept going, climbing a ladder of power, taking on offices she was not qualified to hold and incompetent at doing. But no failure to succeed has dampened her ambition.
So why politics? Why would a woman like Palin want to do a job that requires constant study, interaction with multiple constituencies, long hours tending to the needs of others, and a talent for strategic compromise, all while being criticized at every turn? The only answer I can come up with is that Palin doesn’t actually want to be a politician. She wants to be a candidate. Palin likes competition, she likes the black and white of the adversarial process, much as she did as an athlete. As a candidate, she needs only to stand out from the crowd, say the right things, and deflect hard questions. As a candidate, she can surround herself with supporters and easily dismiss critics. As a candidate, her only task is to win.
A portrait of a woman so addicted to approval that she charges forward seeking ever higher levels of adoration and accolades would be somewhat pitiable if she were doing it in a different arena. But Palin’s drive to win in politics is troubling because she appears to be, based on her record, unfit for office. If there were a role in politics for the designated candidate, someone who could bring crowds to polling places but would then step aside to let leveler heads so the sausage-making of governance, Palin would be less of a threat. But since any time she succeeds in her quest to win ever larger elections results in her taking on increasingly greater roles of power, she is a force that needs to be prevented from holding future office. There is no room in the White House for a person who is there to prove that she’s the winner. There is no time in the work of the Presidency for the kind of blitzes Palin unleashes on her critics at the expense of turning her attention to the tasks at hand. It would be frankly dangerous for Palin to treat a world leader with the same vitriol that she treated the bloggers and reporters who questioned her actions as governor. But, if these books reflect the truth, Palin does not have the ability to see the greater good. She only sees what’s best for her and the path to winning, no matter the contest.