With the release of “Going Rogue: An American Life,” Sarah Palin officially has become the Rorschach test of American politics.
Like a political inkblot, impressions about her reveal far more about the individual than they do about her. Grass-roots conservatives love her; the far-left and liberal media abhor her. Since Washington-based Republican strategists can’t control her, many find her unnerving, even as her appeal awes them.
This uncontrollability — her rogue qualities —explains the Palin phenomenon. Too many national politicians in both parties are automatons, over-coached, scripted by high-priced handlers, (in Obama’s case, tethered to the teleprompter), their language shaped by focus groups, their posture suggesting they are fearful of their own shadow.
In a sea of programmed mannequins, Palin’s candor is refreshing, even disarmingly so. Little wonder that even as they lambaste her, the pundits and talking heads cannot resist talking about her — and they pine for the ratings and book sales she delivers.
In seconding the nomination of Grover Cleveland for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884, former Union Gen. and Wisconsin Congressman Edward S. Bragg enthused, “We love him for the enemies he has made.” Bragg was referring to New York’s Tammany Hall machine, and like Cleveland, Palin ran as an anti-machine candidate, taking on the good-old-boy network of the Alaska GOP when she ran for governor in 2006.
This is a second part of her appeal: She is beholden to no one except the voters.
The criticism of Palin’s book as self-serving is unfair and untrue. Certainly she settles scores; one would expect no less from a political memoir worth reading. But she is self-critical of her performance in the interview with Katie Couric of CBS News, even as she argues that it the campaign handled it poorly.
She also writes movingly of learning that she was carrying a Down syndrome baby, and her empathy and understanding for women who find themselves in a troubled pregnancy and might consider abortion. The vignette reveals a capacity for self-awareness and for connecting with others that it is an important attribute in any leader. Palin chose life, and gave witness to her faith and her values with deeds that spoke louder than words.
Palin is, in fact, an archetype of American politics: the Joan of Arc candidate battling the forces that would seek to control her or bring her down. In "Dark Horse," I wrote about a fictional woman vice presidential nominee named Betsy Hafer (the first woman on a national ticket since 1984). Hafer is a gifted instinctive politician, extremely attractive with a wardrobe to match, and has been a governor for less than two years and is thus relatively untested on the national scene.
Chosen by the presidential nominee to unite his divided party and shake up a race he is losing, Hafer slips up in several media interviews and is quarantined by her handlers and the campaign staff back at headquarters. After leaks panning her performance, she kicks several of the staff off her plane and starts flying around the country speaking freely and connecting with the voters as she pleases.
I wrote "Dark Horse" in the spring of 2007, and it was published in June 2008. When McCain selected Palin three months later, I nearly fell out of my chair. I’ll never tell who the real inspiration for the Hafer character was, but the narrative arc of Palin’s selection, meteoric rise, and then victimization by self-serving leakers who sought to blame her for the party’s defeat was all too predictable.
Geraldine Ferraro experienced it a quarter century ago, and future national women politicians will endure similar mistreatment. The way the national media kicked around Palin (and to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton) suggested that sexism is still alive in our politics.
With “Going Rogue,” Palin gets to speak on her own, free from the restraints of a national campaign and unfiltered by the media gatekeepers. The book is well-written, honest, revealing, and compelling.
What the future holds for Sarah Palin is anyone’s guess. But based on her governorship, the 2008 campaign, and the phenomenal success of her book, it certainly won’t be boring. My guess is that she will be a force in American politics for years to come.
To learn more about Ralph's book, "Dark Horse," click here. For information about Civil War Union General and Wisconsin Congressman Edward S. Bragg, click here.
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