Saturday, November 21st, 8:49am: Good morning. I am about to read Sarah Palin.
But I want to say something first about the dust jacket. Going Rogue has a remarkable dust jacket. After the jump I have posted two images for your consideration.
So. What we have here on the dust jacket of the last best-selling memoir of the decade is a photograph of Sarah Palin.
She is wearing a red zipper jacket (of some unknowable fabric blend) and a tri-color flag pin (from some unknowable metal alloy). She is gazing left and beaming brightly (and something bright is beaming back at her, illuminating her face with a soft and unnatural glow). The photographer must have been crouching when this photograph was snapped, must have been aiming the camera upward at Palin, because the horizon behind Palin is low in the frame, which makes Palin seem to tower down from blue and optimistic heavens. The effect is worshipful.
Or, the effect is mock-worshipful: The last memoir to feature this much gaudy red fabric, this many maudlin blue clouds, was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
And so, before even opening the book, I am wondering whether Palin is being lampooned. HarperCollins, her publisher, is headquartered at 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York. This means that the editors and designers and publicists who have spent the last dozen Monday mornings ushering Going Rogue into print have also spent the last dozen Saturdays walking the variegated streets of Brooklyn and shopping the encyclopedic stores of Manhattan, have spent the last dozen Sundays reading only pertinent magazines and eating only well-researched meals. In other words? In other words, these people at HarperCollins-even the dullest of them-are not unsophisticated. They are versed in the national semiotics, are familiar with the elements of portraiture. They know that this photo of Palin is mocking. They know this photo will make half the world recoil, or snort. And yet no one at HarperCollins stopped Sarah Palin from being made a laughingstock by her own dust jacket.
. . .
9:09am: Not half an hour in, and I have realized that I am in journalistic trouble. HarperCollins? Who publishes Palin? Um, so, they also publish me.
I must now eat breakfast. I feel duty-bound not to begin reading until 10:00am.
. . .
9:28am. But, so, the first thing in this book is a map.
It appears on the page before the title page: a map of the northern hemisphere, centered on the Artic Sea. Lines of longitude all converge from every corner, coming together at the North Pole, which is right at the center of the map. "The View from the Top of the World," the map says.
Russia, upside-down, stretches across the upper part of the map, from about 9 o'clock to about 2 o'clock, and Greenland and Canada, right-side-up, stretch along the lower parts, from about 3 o'clock to 8 o'clock. Between 8 and 9 o'clock, printed in a darker shade of gray than any other landmass, labeled in a font to indicate that it is not a state but a nation, is Alaska.
This map effectively re-emphasizes something I learned at age seven. From an international military perspective, Alaska is our only defense against armies in Kamchatka and Irkutsk.
. . .
10:03am: Have begun reading. Here is the first syntax in the book:
Dedicated to all Patriots who share my love of the United States of America. And particularly to our women and men in uniform, past and present-God bless the fight for freedom.
. . .
10:10am: I am on page three, and already I feel the need to type out some more block quotes. Please be patient.
. . .
10:11am: So. When the book opens, it is August of 2008 and Governor Sarah Palin is at the Alaska State Fair. My guess is that by page ten she will receive the amazing & incredible phone call telling her that she has been chose as John McCain's running mate. (My guess is also that receiving that amazing & incredible phone call will serve as a cliffhanger ending to Chapter 1; my guess is also that the narrative will skip thirty years into the past at the beginning of Chapter 2, so that Palin can recount the amazing & incredible voyage that brought her to the Alaska State Fair, as the Governor, in August of 2008.) But as I said, I am only on page 3:
Years before, I had seen out state speeding toward an economic train wreck. Since construction began in 1975 on what would become Alaska's economic lifeline, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, it had grown increasingly obvious to everyday Alaskans that many of their public servants were not necessarily serving the public. Instead they had climbed into bed with Big Oil. Meanwhile, in a young state where people clung to America's original pioneering and independent spirit, government was growing as fast as fireweed in July.
This prose is only averagely bad. It is plain from the first that Palin writes carelessly, and the reader adjusts. The phrase "an economic train wreck"? It doesn't evoke any railroad images, it is just a poorly engineered synonym for the noun "disaster." "Climb into bed"? A sleepy variant for the verb "accommodate." If she were not deaf to connotation, she would not use the verb "cling" (as in "they cling to guns and religion") without irony; if she were not deaf to music, she would avoid the repetition of "lifeline" and "Pipeline." But, again, in terms of vice-presidential memoirs, this is only averagely bad. At least it still makes sense. Continuing:
It didn't make sense.
It seemed that true public service, crafting policies that were good for the people, had become increasingly derailed by politics and its infernal machines.
And so the prose goes to hell. One paragraph earlier, the train was the economy, and it was speeding toward a wreck. In this paragraph, the train is public service, and it has been derailed. In fact, the train is "increasingly derailed." Never mind that, in English, a train cannot become "increasingly derailed," any more than a fetus can be "increasingly aborted," or than Christ Our Savior can be "increasingly born"-we already knew that no wreck and no derailment could stop this particular vice-presidential locomotive:
But I had a drive to help, an interest in government and current events since I was a little kid, and I had become aware of the impact of common sense public policy during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I was intrigued by political science in college and studied journalism because of my passion for the power of words.
I want to say that this final sentence is evidence, just like the dust jacket, of the editorial dereliction at HarperCollins; I want to say that letting Sarah Palin put in print that she has a "passion for the power of words" is tantamount to letting her put in print that she is an fool. But perhaps not. Perhaps the employees of HarperCollins did warn her; perhaps Palin was just too arrogant to take heed.
. . .
10:52am: Fifty-two minutes, and I've read three pages.
. . .
10:57am: Shit, folks, no foolin'. On page 6, while still at the Alaska State Fair, she gets a phone call. "It was Senator John McCain, asking if I wanted to help him change history." And then Chapter 1 ends. And then Chapter 2 begins on page 7, and "From Sandpoint, Idaho, where I was born, via Juneau, Alaska, I touched down in the windy, remote frontier town of Skagway cradled in my mother's arms."
If you ever write a vice-presidential memoir, make certain to begin in media res.
. . .
11:38am: I am on page 38, having finished Chapter 6, which begins with the following sentence:
By my senior year of high-school, I had been praying that God wouldn't have in mind for my future one of the local boys I'd grown up with.
And ends with the following sentence:
My young, crushed spirit learned a lesson about guys that day: even the good ones can act like jerks.
The year is 1981, and Sarah Heath has met Todd Palin. It is a fine chapter. We hear about Van Halen cassette tapes, and L.A. Lakers sweatshirts and how, barred from long conversations on the family phone, Sarah would contact Todd from her backporch, using the handheld VHF radio off his fishingboats. It is, in fact, the liveliest chapter about vice-presidential childhood ever written. Ed Muskie tried the same thing, and came off sounding platitudinous. He came off sounding presidential. Sarah Palin actually sounds like someone trying her Christian & autodidactic best to write a first book.
. . .
11:49 am. It is, after all, an autodidact's book. Oh, she graduated high school, she graduated college. But when Palin remembers her school years, she remembers sports. When she remembers the classroom, she remembers a television being rolled in to show a movie of the moon landing. Her memories of learning to spell are set in church where, during a sermon, she realizes she knows how to spell the word "different." She has an autodidact's eclecticism. She has assembled a magpie philosophy, and she can tell you the national origin of every piece of it:
Mom found a depth of spirituality she had been seeking, the filling of what the French writer Blaise Pascal called "the god-shaped vacuum" in every human heart
And she also has this autodidactic tic: Page 3: "My passion for the power of words." Page 15: "I developed a love of reading and writing early on." Page 15: "She found clever ways to encourage my love of the written word." Page 28: "My passion for both sports and the written word."
. . .
12:19pm: Palin wants to convince the reader, or herself, that she is a great lover and protector of the Alaskan wild. And so, for example, on pages 34 and 35 she waxes on about Alaska's bountiful salmon, pictured here:
It is worth nothing that, in 2008, when Alaskans were called to voted on a measure asking whether or not humanity ought to preserve what the New York Times called "one of the world's last great runs of Pacific salmon," Alaskans decided that humanity should not. A major factor in the defeat of the measure in question was, I gather, the opposition of Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin.
(If anyone knows the latest on this story, by the way, I'd be curious to hear about it in the comments.)
. . .
12:33pm. Page 44. Chapter 7. Palin recounts how she began entering the Miss America Scholarship Pageant to help pay for her college tuition.
She excerpts an exchange, captured on video tape, between herself and one of the judges. The judge, mentioning that Geraldine Ferraro has just become the first female vice-presidential candidate, asks: "Would you vote for a vice presidential or presidential candidate just because she was a woman?"
Pageant contestant Sarah Heath answers, unsurprisingly: "No, I would not vote for someone just because they were a woman. I would vote her the candidate that reflected my political beliefs and had strong character and family values."
Fine, fine. What is fascinating is what Palin has to say about this exchange now, in 2009. It is the most revealing moment thus far in the memoir. It expresses, in a single breath, Palin's two most outstanding characteristics, her giant self-regard and her stunted self-reflection:
That exchange, a quarter century ago, now seems either strangely coincidental or a Providential signpost pointing forward my future. And I don't believe in coincidences.
. . .
12:51pm: Pardon my silence for an hour. I must eat and read.
. . .
1:32pm. While eating a cheese sandwich, I read Palin's descriptions of motherhood. (These passages are the most saccharine of Americana; they are mom-tastic; they deserve an essay themselves, something in fiery Menkenese. Later, later.) So let me cite one small example. On page 57, Bristol Palin has just been born. "Her shock of black hair, chubby cheeks, and dark, lively eyes showed off her Native heritage." And what was the child like?:
As she grew she manifested her little mama's heart by nurturing her siblings and cousins and always begging to babysit.
How Sarah Palin, knowing what she knows in 2009, could write with pride that Bristol Palin always had a "little mama's heart," is beyond my power to explain. It was enough to make me put down my cheese sandwich. It is enough to make me spend twenty minutes away from my lunch, hunched over my laptop, trying to find words.
. . .
2:18pm: There are likable moments:
While I served in [the Wasilla] council, a local politician asked me to cut a radio ad for his campaign. I liked his conservative message and said I'd help. Into the KMBQ radio station I brought my hungry, grumpy baby in a Snugli, and the only way to calm Willow was to inconspicuously nurse her while we rolled tape. I acted like I didn't see the shocked look on the politician's face as he turned red and pretended it didn't bother him at all.
That said, "turning red and pretending it doesn't bother her at all" is a nice summary of what this book has become, by page 77. Palin is recounting her tenure as mayor of Wasilla, which is to say, recounting some of the incidents of her early political life that would be revisted in 2008. Palin explains, for example, her famous run-ins with the town librarian. Red in the face, she pretends that the national media's portrayal of her a small-town censor doesn't bother her at all.
. . .
2:32pm: Page 80: "As Napoleon said, 'Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.'"
. . .
2:32pm: Page 84: This memoir is reminiscent of Dan Quayle's, in its incoherence. (In Quayle's case it seemed calculated; in Palin's case, less so.) Of her first campaign for statewide office in Alaska, Palin says:
The campaign was also my first opportunity to introduce my fiscal philosophy to all Alaskans. In national politics, some feel that Big Business is always opposed to the Little Guy. Some people seem to think a profit motive is inherently greedy and evil, and that what's good for business is bad for people.
Of course, among the people who "seem to think" that "what's good for business is bad for people" is Palin herself, as reflected in that passage from Page 3 that I quoted above, "public servants not necessarily serving the public," "climbed into bed with Big Oil," etc. It's inadvertent, of course. Palin speaks only in rhetoric; which is to say, she speaks only in words she heard somewhere else; which is to say coherence cannot be expected.
Hence the quotes from Pascal, from Napoleon.
. . .
3:00pm: And from Lou Holtz. Page 79:
I have a bulletin board filled with coffee-stained, dog-eared quotes tacked up along with family photos that has followed me from office to office since 1992. One of my favorite quotes comes from author and former football coach Lou Holtz, on how to build your team: "Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated."
Speaking of motivation: Reading this book is like walking through a snowbank. I am up to my icy loins in the whitest cliche.
. . .
3:24 pm: What happens when a clean-mouthed & mom-tastic writer has the perfect clichÃƒÂ© to express a sentiment, but the clichÃƒÂ© involves mild vulgarity? Page 98:
Then the strained peas hit the fan.
. . .
3:34 pm. This book is 413 pages long, divided into five long parts, each consisting of half a dozen sub-chapters. I have just reached the end of the second part, which occurs on page 104.
It is now the Winter of 2004. Sarah Palin has lost a race for Lieutenant Governor. She is caring for her newest child, Piper, and is going for long runs, and is saying long prayers, and is beginning to feel "a sense of purpose hovering just beyond my vision." Obviously, God is about to instruct Sarah Palin to seek the governorship.
The third part of the book begins on page 105. I see that it is titled "Drill, Baby, Drill." It is 100 pages long. I will read it before I go to sleep tonight. But pardon me for a couple of hours while I go for a long run and say some long prayers. I'll be back on-line by 6pm in Brooklyn.
. . .
5:23 pm: While I ran, I sensed something hovering just beyond my vision. I sensed it was the Spirit of Sarah.
And I realized that the same dynamic that, in 2008, doomed her candidacy for Vice President now, in 2009, dooms her project as a memoirist.
As a candidate, Palin believed her appeal lay in her populism; in her speech and in her manner, she comported herself as though she were unspoiled by any worldly refinements; she was a "hockey mom," she was "from Main Street, not Wall Street;" Sarah Palin, we were told, was one of us. But America was at an undemocratic moment in 2008; Americans did not want a government of the normal and of the everyday, a government of the averagely bad; Americans wanted a government of superior people; Americans wanted, in other words, competence.
Similarly so, as a memoirist, Palin believes her appeal lays in her common tongue. She ventures no opinions we have not heard before, from all our neighbors and friends; she formulates no thoughts that couldn't be expressed by a high school coach, or by the master of ceremonies at a state fair. And so her book is devoid of psychology, or subtlety. The sublime hatreds, the wafting regret, the recurrent dreaming, the stuff of human life: they are absent from this book. She is willing to talk about her labor pains when she had her first child, she is willing to tell us about her fights with her husband-but only in the peppy and off-handed tone that co-workers and causal acquaintances use when they want to discourage further questions. She sounds like one of us, and so fails to justify consuming our attention. Readers want a literature to be superior company.
But, as I was saying, while I ran, I sensed something hovering just beyond my vision.
. . .
5:44 pm: And, as I said, I sensed it was the Spirit of Sarah. Here is a quote from page 86, where Palin described her losing bid to be Alaska's Lieutenant Governor:
"I'm going one step forward and two steps back," I wrote in my journal. "And this is my laughable attempt at running?"
My campaign theme was "New Energy," but, unfortunately, I did not run an energetic campaign. I had always burned with purpose, but this time I was stretched so thin that there was just no room for another log on the fire.
What there is always room for, in Palin's memoir, is another metaphor in the mix, another proverb in the paragraph.
I thought about this paragraph while I was on my run. My run took me around Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And, as I came to the bend at the bottom of the hill, as I turned the corner at the far end of the lake, I finally caught sight of that thing that had been hovering just beyond my vision. It was the Spirit of Sarah. And I recognized who she was. Sarah Palin was Sancho Panza.
. . .
. . .
6:00pm: One hundred pages to go before I sleep.
. . .
6:21pm: Page 114. Palin is describing her bid to be Governor. She and Todd drive deep into the countryside to deliver a yard sign:
These good folks were exactly the type of Alaskans who supported us: hardworking, unpretentious, patriotic, and ready for honest leadership.
As opposed to the lazy, effete, seditious crooks who opposed Palin. Anyway:
They treated us to slices of homemade rhubarb pie, then gave us a whole blueberry pie that we shared with friends after our 800-mile, 40-hour round-trip, driven to the sound of the Black Eyed Peas and and old LL Cool J remix we found in the glove box.
Please, please, in the comments, can someone explain to me: What is it with the Black Eyed Peas?
. . .
6:59pm: Good governance may be tedious and inglorious; but can nothing be done to liven it up, when it later is recorded in prose? From pages 124 and 125:
I knew if I kept my campaign promise of overhauling the state in the areas of resource development, fiscal restraint, and ethical government, I would also be able to turn attention to equally urgent issues such as education, services for special needs and the elderly, job training, unemployment, and social ills in rural Alaska. We'd be able to do so with reprioritized funding to help the private sector provide opportunities in a way that would help Alaskans stand tall and independent.
I read this, and I realized: Jesus shit, Sarah Palin actually thinks there is a chance I may someday vote for her.
. . .
7:26pm: Page 146:
As Thomas Paine said in 1776: "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my children may have peace."
And then, between Page 146 and 147 come eight pages of full-color photos of Heath and Palin family life from the 1960s through the 1990s. About these I will say nothing except that they are gamey.
. . .
7:45pm. Page 153. The gamey photos are over. There is a section about Alaskan energy policy. There is a section about the Alaskan budget process. Yes, yes, it seems that this entire one-hundred-page-long section, "Drill, Baby, Drill," is going to consist exclusively of Palin bragging about the twenty months she spent as Governor of Alaska before getting that amazing & incredible phone call from John McCain. It is now 7:48pm. In twelve minutes, I start drinking.
. . .
7:55pm: I mean seven minutes.
. . .
8:03pm: Page 153: "…one of my first priorities was to establish the Petroleum Systems Integrity Office (PSIO) …" Page 155: " …the ethics supervisor over AOGCC … " Page 157: " … what would become the landmark Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, or AGIA … "
This is dark. To cry "Speak, Memory!" and to hear Memory answer in acronyms? Very dark.
. . .
8:30pm: Page 171. Palin is recounting some memories of her oldest child, Track. He played hockey, suffered some injuries. One injury, from when he was 17, sent him to a hospital where the silly nurses-anxious to leave his stomach empty should he need surgery, reluctant to proceed medically without his parents' consent-declined to give the boy a drink of water. This provides occasion for Palin to reflect:
I even wondered out loud why this big, strapping nearly grown man who was overcome with pain couldn't even get a drink of water without parental consent, yet a thirteen-year-old girl could undergo a painful, invasive, and scary abortion and no parent even had to be notified.
So maybe Palin does have a sense of irony. Or maybe not. Two pages later, Palin watches while Track enlists as an Army infantry man. (The Army was happy to have him as a soldier, despite his hockey injuries; they needed boots on the ground in Iraq.) He takes the oath on September 11, 2007. Palin reflects:
These are just kids! I thought. Yet they're doing all they can to protect and serve the greatest country on earth. Are the rest of us doing as much?
That sentiment concludes sub-chapter 8. Sub-chapter nine begins with Palin reporting what she did to match her son's commitment:
Two weeks later, I flew to New Orleans to keynote an oil and gas conference.
. . .
8:54pm: If you are in a bookstore, if you have five minutes to spare, read pages 171 through 180 of Palin's memoir, where she recounts the days when she learned that her fifth child would be born with Down syndrome.
For this atheist, at this hour of night, admiration mixed with pity. Here is a woman whose first thought is always, This is the work of God.
. . .
9:06pm: I shall make only one more remark tonight.
. . .
9:58pm: And that is that I have reached page 208, the end of Part 3. Track has shipped off; Trig has been born; John McCain is about to call Sarah Palin, and the plunge into the narrative past that began on page 7 has finally come to a close.
Part 4, which begins on page 209, is titled "Going Rogue." I will begin reading that as soon as I am awake in the morning. For tonight, I leave you with this, from a description of the Iron Dog race:
Trailbreakers move through to mark the trail before the racers take off. A couple of years ago one of them was caught in an avalanche. It took ten days to find the guy's body buried in the snow. We've lost a few friends that way.
How true, Sarah. How true.
. . .
Part two of Reading Sarah Palin commences here.