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Sarah and Her Tribe

Sarah Palin; drawing by John Springs

When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

There’s a moment of near rapture in the video of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul on September 3, 2008. It begins in the eleventh minute, after her Westbrook Pegler quote (“We grow good people in our small towns…”) and before her “lipstick” quip about hockey moms and pit bulls. Following a nervous start, she is now entirely at ease in front of the biggest crowd of her speaking life, and riding high on the chants of “Sarah!” “USA!” and “Drill, baby, drill!” Her smile looks ecstatic, as she allows herself a snuffling chuckle at the acerbity of her own wit, then shows off her repertoire of little nods of self-approbation, complicit left-eye winks from behind her glasses, and lips smugly pursed to signal that an unanswerable point has just been made. When the camera cuts to the crowd, face after face is a joyful mirror image of Palin’s own, as if transfigured by a shared triumph. (Striking exceptions among the faces include those of Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, and Cindy McCain, all of whom register a cautious agnosticism in the presence of the epiphany.) In Going Rogue, Palin and her ghost, Lynn Vincent, write of the speech, “By God’s grace I was having a ball.”

In contrast to Barack Obama, who maintained a detachment verging on aloofness from his most fervent and adulatory campaign crowds, Palin achieved an extraordinary at-oneness with her supporters; not least, perhaps, because she appeared to be such an enthralled fan of her own performances. She managed to endow her threadbare homilies about free enterprise, tax cuts, patriotism, and the evil of government spending with the novelty of her own sudden, fresh-faced presence on the national scene. Most of all, she seemed to embody in her person and her life story the accumulated grievances of the heartland and the West: the resentment in the countryside and the exurbs against the liberal tyranny of the big cities; the antipathy of those she calls “real Americans” toward the “East Coast elites”; the surly resistance of states’ rights proponents to “the Feds.”

Her nasal voice, pitched in the upper register, with the upsy-downsy, singsong delivery of a kindergarten teacher, became, rather improbably, a great electoral asset. Her diction and accent were shaped more by class than region, and spiced with faux-genteel cuss words like “dang,” “heck,” “darn,” “geez,” “bullcrap,” and “bass-ackwards.” It was a voice unspoiled by overmuch formal education and boldly unafraid of truisms and clichés; a perfect foil for Obama’s polished law-school eloquence. In the narrative of the McCain campaign, she was the exemplary real American, Obama the phony one, and when people are now interviewed in the interminable lines for her book signings, by far their most common remark about her is “She’s real.”

Alaska, the particular reality from which Palin hails, is so little known by most Americans that she was able to freely mythicize her state as the utopian last refuge of the “hard work ethic,” “unpretentious living,” and proud self-sufficiency. Her anti-tax rhetoric (private citizens spend their money more wisely than government does) and disdain for “federal dollars” were unembarrassed by the fact that Alaska tops the tables of both per capita federal expenditure, on which one in three jobs in the state depends, and congressional earmarks, or “pork.” So, too, she mythicized the straggling eyesore of Wasilla (described by a current councilwoman there as “like a big ugly strip mall from one end to the other”) as the bucolic small town of sentimental American memory. Listening to Palin talk about it, one was invited to inspect not the string of oceanic parking lots attached to Fred Meyer, Lowe’s, Target, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, or the town’s reputation among state troopers as the crystal meth capital of Alaska, but, rather, the imaginary barber shop, drugstore soda fountain, antique church, and raised boardwalks, seen in the rosy light of an Indian summer evening.

To audiences struggling to keep their heads above water through a deepening recession, her Alaska de l’esprit, this land of boundless natural resources and minimal government and taxation, “microcosm of America” as she liked to say, sounded a fine place to which to escape from the exigencies of living in the real United States in 2008. When talking to people who talk and think as she does, Palin has an exceptionally canny political instinct for connecting with her own kind. She turned her campaign rallies into giant family picnics, at which the assembled thousands, striking for their physical resemblance to one another, basked in having their own family catchphrases, like “politics as usual,” returned to them in magnified form by the monitor screens and loudspeakers. Safely within her tribe, Palin speaks fluently, with warmth and humor,1 though grammatical logic tends to evade her; it’s away from the tribe, talking, for instance, with Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, and other members of what she now calls the “lamestream media,” that she dissolves into flustered babble.

Going Rogue is about further cementing her connection to the tribe. A book that begins with Governor Palin visiting the Alaska Right to Life booth at the 2008 state fair (“With their passion and sincerity, the ladies typified the difference between principles and politics”) clearly isn’t aiming to pander to liberal trespassers among its readers. Her encounter with the sincere and passionate ladies, and the jangling false antithesis between “principles” and “politics,” which goes little further than the fact that both words begin with a p, sound the opening notes of Palin’s dominant theme, as she markets her brand of “Commonsense Conservatism.”

Commonsense Conservatism hinges on the not-so-tacit assumption that the average, hardworking churchgoer, like the ladies at the booth, equipped with the fundamental, God-given ability to distinguish right from wrong, is in a better position to judge, on “principle,” the merits of an economic policy or the deployment of American troops abroad than “the ‘experts’”—a term here unfailingly placed between derisive quotation marks. Desiccated expertise, of the kind possessed by economists, environmental scientists, and overinformed reporters from the lamestream media, clouds good judgment; Palin’s life, by contrast, is presented as one of passion, sincerity, and principle. Going Rogue, in other words, is a four-hundred-page paean to virtuous ignorance.

Much of the book is given over to establishing what Palin shares in common with the “patriotic, good-hearted Americans” who’ve been crowding the malls to await the arrival of her tour bus, so one learns more than one would ideally like about her habits as a consumer. Her preferred fashion label is Carhartt, the manufacturer of outdoor work clothes; she says she shops at Costco and clips coupons. “We buy diapers in bulk and generic peanut butter.” She dislikes “fancy food,” “fancy clothes,” and “fancy jewelry.” When she and Todd Palin “eloped” to Palmer (which is all of eleven miles distant from Wasilla) to get married, they celebrated with a wedding dinner at “the Wendy’s drive-thru.” Later, they “bought a $35 wedding band from a street vendor in Hawaii, and it still works!” “My family is frugal,” Palin remarks, rather unnecessarily.

Meat is what she likes to consume most, though not rare, or even pink, meat (which might strike a too-fancy note with her target demographic):

I love meat. I eat pork chops, thick bacon burgers, and the seared fatty edges of a medium-well-done steak. But I especially love moose and caribou. I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals—right next to the mashed potatoes….

People outside Alaska are often clueless about our reliance on natural food sources. (You know you’re an Alaskan when at least twice a year your kitchen doubles as a meat-processing plant.)

Her sarcophagous appetite for flesh and slaughter goes hand in hand with her scorn for vegetarians—more, it seems, because of their presumed social class and education than because of the food on their plates. An old enemy in Wasilla (the book is full of them) is described as a “Birkenstock-and-granola Berkeley grad who wore her gray hair long and flowing and with a flower behind one ear.” Palin’s speechwriter on the McCain campaign, Matthew Scully, is also the author of an admired book on animal rights, Dominion. He becomes “a bunny-hugging vegan and gentle, green soul who I think would throw himself in the path of a semitruck to save a squirrel” and “the classic absentminded professor.” Though his speeches were “like poetry,” it required a real, meat-eating, normal American to give them substance.

In a welcome moment of shading and contrast, Palin the consumer finds space to mention the fact that she drives a black VW Jetta, which seems an odd choice of car for an all-American patriot, since US Jettas are imported from the Volkswagen assembly plant in Puebla, Mexico.

Everything I ever needed to know, I learned on the basketball court,” Palin says, reprising a sentence she first wrote in an Op-Ed piece for the Anchorage Daily News in April 2004, before ghostwriters entered her life. “I loved competition.” On one hand, she paints herself as the average mom, a “Main Streeter,” as she described herself in her campaign debate with Joe Biden; on the other, driven by her “gift” of “determination and resolve,” she’s a born winner, but only of reassuringly average trophies, which are lined up in the book as on the family mantelpiece.

There’s the medal she won as a ten-year-old from the VFW for her poem about Betsy Ross (alas, not reprinted here), along with the sashes from the Miss Wasilla contest (“I won every segment of the competition, even Miss Congeniality”) and her place as second runner-up to Miss Alaska in the state final. “Every year in school I ran for something in student government—vice president, treasurer, something.” Her many exploits in track and field culminate in the high school basketball championship game between the Wasilla Warriors, captained by Palin with a badly sprained ankle, and the Service Cougars of Anchorage. “I’d never worked so hard for anything in my life, because I’d never wanted anything so badly.” Small town played big city. Small town won. “That victory changed my life.”

Her father, Chuck Heath, hunter, taxidermist, elementary school science teacher, and sports coach, loomed imposingly over her childhood, and clearly inspired her egregious appetite to compete in, and to win, every contest that came her way:

My siblings all won many more sports awards than I, as I wasn’t equipped with anything close to their natural talent. But I once overheard Dad say to another coach that he’d never had an athlete work harder. Overhearing those words was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

No wonder she found political elections irresistible, and basketball, with its multiple opportunities for tactical cheating, in the way of well-executed pushes, jersey-pullings, bumpings, and “flops,” supplies a fitting analogy for how the bright, intensely willful, energetic, but academically mediocre housewife and salmon-fisher gamed her way from the Wasilla city council to the gubernatorial mansion in Juneau. Palin showed her form in her first big race, in 1996, when she challenged the three-term incumbent mayor of the town, John Stein, who seems not to have known what hit him. With the backing of her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, and the hunting interest, she campaigned on the nonmayoral issues of abortion and gun-ownership. It was put about that the Steins were living in sin: they produced their marriage certificate. It was also put about that Stein, a lapsed Lutheran, was Jewish. In 2008, he told William Yardley of The New York Times:

  1. 1

    As she did in her speech at the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner at Evansville, Indiana, in April 2009, which can be seen at www.conservatives4palin.com/2009/04/right-to-life-dinner-video-live-feed.html.

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