Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: Going Rogue: An American Life

1 Kings 19 tells the story of the prophet Elijah's fleeing that stinking heathen queen Jezebel. He ended up in that great, vague biblical setting of testing and redemption -- the wilderness, plopped himself under a broom tree, and, with typical Old Testament histrionics, prayed that he might die. Angels came to comfort him. And, just like sympathetic church ladies would thousands of years in the future for their suffering co-congregants, they brought him cake. Thus, the lesson of this story is, when you've used up your last strength running for your life, battling an antagonistic foe, hitting dead ends, and even when you have given up hope, cake helps. At birthdays and weddings, at funerals and during illnesses, at the end of one dream or at the kindling of a new one, cake has a role to play.

Sarah Palin understands the significance and salutary effects of cake. Were it only for that reason, I would like her.

But, there are many, many more reasons to like this former governor of the Last Frontier State. I will confess that I went into reading Going Rogue: An American Life already knowing several of those reasons. I finished the book knowing myriad more. So, like most reviews I write (or anyone else writes, for that matter), this comes from a partial and prejudiced point of view. I am a Palinista -- or, at least, a junior one. The Governor speaks to the issues about which I care and takes stances with which I agree. I voted for her in 2008 (and that old guy she was running with), and I would vote for her again, gladly. And yet, I do not think that this book was written for me.

Michael Medved recently stated on his radio show that the reason Sarah Palin wrote this book was that "she needed the money." Well, I am sure she could use the money. With five kids and a stack of legal bills from defending herself against frivolous ethics complaints filed during her governorship, who couldn't use an extra mil or two? But, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Medved. Gov. Palin has enough speaking requests with large price tags attached lined up to fulfill years of time and generate heaps of income. She did not "need" to write this book. I think that she wrote it to retake command of the narrative of her life, which was ripped from her during the scurrilous media feeding frenzy that surrounded this formerly obscure politician who dared to treat her running mate's opponent as the rather silly, grandiose, empty suit that he unfortunately is.

All of a sudden, this popular governor, this cheerful can-do woman of strength and character forged in the rugged beauty of our largest state, this wife of one and mother of five who was recruited for local office when she was in her late twenties and built a reputation for practical, ethical leadership among her constituents that led to an improbable -- yet gratifyingly American -- rise to the highest executive office to correct a state riddled with corruption and pork, this spitfire, this plain-speaker, this startlingly clear communicator was being portrayed by openly hostile news writers and broadcasters as a brainless, corrupt, hickish, diva-ish, incompetent, mean-spirited, unmotherly, uncaring, Bible-thumping-flat-earth-believing, manipulative philistine. Sheesh. Do you remember watching that media circus unfold? It was not a great moment for the fourth estate, to put it mildly. But anybody with any sort of curiosity could have sorted through the muck to find the truth. I was one of those who did. But, like I said, this book was not written for me.

So, what about the book itself? You know I like the lady; what did I think of the book? Well, I read close to 100 books a year, and very few come from the bestsellers lists. While everyone else is talking about the latest schmaltzy weeper from Oprah's book club, I'm digging up Isabel Paterson novels from inter-library loan. Autobiographies are a tough sell for me. I can count on one hand the number I have read and liked. An autobiography of a current political figure? Get outta here, and don't show your face until you've brought me some Roger Kimball or Alan Jacobs as a peace offering! And yet, I ordered Going Rogue on the first day that I could. I figured that, because I like Gov. Palin so much, it could be like eating Turkish Delight -- the way you imagine Turkish Delight will taste when you are a nine-year-old reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; not the way it actually tastes when you finally get a hold of some as an adult (which is bloody awful, in my opinion). Or, it could be horrible -- too ambitious, too imitative, overly-stylized, long on policy, short on personality -- making all the mistakes the McCain campaign did when they tried to turn Sarah Palin into a GOP-droid.

I am happy to report, this book is the former. In fact, I stayed up until 4:00 AM this morning to finish it, so engrossed was I. Sarah Palin has a keen sense of who she is and what she has to offer, and that comes through so clearly in this book. I know that she had a collaborator named Lynn Vincent who helped her organize and format her story; but, I think, I really do think, that the voice is all Sarah Palin's. It rings true. There is really a sense that she is talking to you -- not crafting a great work of literature for posterity and fame, but just telling you her story -- with humor, warmth, grace and humility. It is an easy read, not a deep read, by any means. Should Sarah Palin never again run for or get elected to office, it will likely fade away, lost in the mists of time and relegated to the musty shelves of antiquarian booksellers. But, I am glad to have read it. It sets out in plain language who she is, where she came from, what she's accomplished, and what she believes. It is refreshingly energetic and optimistic -- were she given the chance, Sarah Palin could soothe the wounds of this battered land with the balm of her upbeat common sense -- and, quite amazingly, free from rancor. She treats far more gently and compassionately than I would the people who have made her life miserable for the past two years. And I guess that is because, in the realest and truest sense, her life has not been miserable at all. No matter what has been thrown at her, she just stands firm in her faith and with her family and friends, and does the right thing. From the advance reviews I had read, I expected at least a bit of a self-pity party; instead, she lives out 2 Corinthians 4:8-10.

More than any other political figure, Sarah Palin invokes the name, message, leadership, and influence of Ronald Reagan. Good choice, indeed. We're big President Reagan fans in this house. But, I would like to offer up that, to me, the political figure Gov. Palin most evokes is Grover Cleveland, our nation's most unjustly neglected president, and my personal favorite. In her record of public service before the hoopla of her national candidacy, Sarah Palin had the quiet, solid fidelity to conviction that characterized the honest leadership of President Cleveland. Rising from a modest background, unable to afford university (he "read law" with a firm to become a lawyer), recruited into politics as sheriff of Buffalo, NY, mayor of same (known as "The Wasilla of New York" in the late 1800's -- OK, I made that up), governor of New York, president of the United States -- the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms. His motto when governor was "Public Office is a Public Trust." He was known as "Grover the Good." He cut taxes and spending. As one of his biographers, Allan Nevins, wrote in 1932, "He had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But, he possessed them in a degree that others did not." Time will tell whether Governor Palin can parallel his success; I have every confidence that she can, if she so chooses.

Michael Medved, whom I love, but who has been driving me crazy with his dismissive comments about Gov. Palin lately, expressed his disappointment that this book was vague and short on policy. Again, I would say that Going Rogue, while a gratifying read for her supporters, was written for one main purpose: reclaiming the life narrative of Sarah Palin. She does that admirably -- addressing just about every rumor and falsehood that I can recall recoiling from during her vice presidential campaign. Her candor is remarkable -- she does not shy away from the horrible things said about her daughters and her marriage and her sweet baby, Trig. She is so patient in revisiting ground that must be terribly painful for her, simply to set the record straight. She is rightly proud of what she was able to accomplish in her short term as governor of Alaska. In fact, she goes quite in depth into Alaskan policies and politics -- spelling out in a clear and concise way (if not exactly spellbinding for this Outsider) the rigmarole of the Alaskan pipeline, butting heads with oil companies, crafting the ACES proposal to incentivize more petroleum exploration and development, and so on. Should she ever wish to write a book-length treatment of public policy proposals, I am sure she would write a readable and reasoned one; this book was never meant to be that.

The wretchedly run McCain campaign is too frustrating for words. I wish Gov. Palin had "gone rogue" from day one. Her take on that debacle is all there, and far too generous in spirit, in my opinion. But, to me, it was most heartbreaking to read about her decision to resign from the governorship of Alaska. She was basically railroaded out of office by a system that allows ethics violation charges to be brought against the executive branch of state government without any penalty to the filer should the accusations prove false. Every charge brought against Governor Palin was dismissed. Every charge. And yet, she had to defend herself out of her own pocket and eventually racked up half a million dollars in legal bills. And, what seems to have hurt her even more personally, these frivolous suits were wasting the time and money of Alaskan taxpayers. She has a grave feeling of responsibility in how she uses other people's money that you frankly do not see a lot of in politics today. And yet, your heart breaks for the state of Alaska when you realize that they had to lose such a dedicated and devoted public servant -- whose love for her state shines out of every page of this book -- because of the politics of personal destruction.

In the arctic north, you cannot sit still for a moment. You have to build that fire, or you'll freeze to death and even your dog will abandon you. Ask Jack London. And Sarah Palin seems to have that restless spirit in abundance. She ends her book with a chapter on "the way forward," in which she gives a brief overview of what is becoming her trademark brand of common sense conservatism. She looks toward America's future with optimism; I look torward her future with anticipation. I can hardly wait to see what she'll do next.

On the day she announced her upcoming resignation from the governorship at the end of July 2009, after the press conference, in her kitchen with her close friends and family, after closing one chapter in her life and looking forward, always forward, with excitement to the next adventure life had in store for her, she ate some cake. Elijah would be proud.

1 comment:

Arielle said...

It's a tribute to your ability to write book reviews that while I hadn't even considered reading Palin's book (like you, not really into autobiographies of current figures) after reading your review I actually think it sounds interesting.

You're also the reason I read Grover Cleveland's biography and now know and respect what a good president he was! (Oh, and I got a friend's dad to read it too, and he also really enjoyed it - so you're having an effect!)