The Pit Bull in the China Shop
By FRANK RICH
The New York Times -- November 21, 2009
AT last the American right and left have one issue they unequivocally agree on: You don’t actually have to read Sarah Palin’s book to have an opinion about it. Last Sunday Liz Cheney praised “Going Rogue” as “well-written” on Fox News even though, by her own account, she had sampled only “parts” of it. On Tuesday, Ana Marie Cox, a correspondent for Air America, belittled the book in The Washington Post while confessing that she couldn’t claim to have “completely” read it.
“Going Rogue” will hardly be the first best seller embraced by millions for talismanic rather than literary ends. And I am not recommending that others follow my example and slog through its 400-plus pages, especially since its supposed revelations have been picked through 24/7 for a week. But sometimes I wonder if anyone has read all of what Palin would call the “dang” thing. Some of the book’s most illuminating tics have been mentioned barely — if at all — by either its fans or foes. Palin is far and away the most important brand in American politics after Barack Obama, and attention must be paid. Those who wishfully think her 15 minutes are up are deluding themselves.
The book’s biggest surprise is Palin’s wide-eyed infatuation with show-business celebrities. You get nearly as much face time with Tina Fey and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in “Going Rogue” as you do with John McCain. We learn how happy Palin was to receive calls from Bono and Warren Beatty “to share ideas and insights.” We wade through star-struck lists of campaign cameos by Robert Duvall, Jon Voight (who “blew us away”), Naomi Judd, Gary Sinise and Kelsey Grammer, among many others. Then there are the acknowledgments at the book’s end, where Palin reveals that her intimacy with media stars is such that she can air-kiss them on a first-name basis, from Greta to Laura to Rush.
Equally revealing is the one boldfaced name conspicuously left unmentioned in the book: Levi Johnston, the father of Palin’s grandchild. Though Palin and McCain milked him for photo ops at the Republican convention, he is persona non grata now that he’s taking off his campaign wardrobe. Is Johnston’s fledgling porn career the problem, or is it his public threats to strip bare Palin family secrets as well? “She knows what I got on her” is how he put it. In Palin’s interview with Oprah last week, it was questioning about Johnston, not Katie Couric, that made her nervous.
The book’s most frequently dropped names, predictably enough, are the Lord and Ronald Reagan (though not necessarily in that order). Easily the most startling passage in “Going Rogue,” running more than two pages, collates extended excerpts from a prayerful letter Palin wrote to mark the birth of Trig, her child with Down syndrome. This missive’s understandable goal was to reassert Palin’s faith and trust in God. But Palin did not write her letter to God; she wrote the letter from God, assuming His role and voice herself and signing it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.” If I may say so — Oy!
Even by the standard of politicians, this is a woman with an outsized ego. Combine that with her performance skills and an insatiable hunger for the limelight, and you can see why she will not stay in Wasilla now that she’s seen 30 Rock. The question journalists repeatedly asked last week — What are Palin’s plans for 2012? — is a red herring. Palin has no obligation to answer it. She is the pit bull in the china shop of American politics, and she can do what she wants, on her own timeline, all the while raking in the big bucks she couldn’t as a sitting governor. No one, least of all her own political party, can control her.
The fact-checking siege of “Going Rogue” — by the media, Democrats and aggrieved McCain campaign operatives alike — is another fruitless sideshow. Palin’s political appeal has never had anything to do with facts — or coherent policy positions. The more she is attacked for not being in possession of pointy-headed erudition, the more powerful she becomes as an avatar of the anti-elite cause. As Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, has correctly observed, “She represents less a philosophical strain on the right than an affect and a demographic.”
That demographic is white and non-urban: Just look at the stops and the faces on her carefully calibrated book tour. The affect is emotional — the angry air of grievance that emerged first at her campaign rallies in 2008, with their shrieked threats to Obama, and that has since resurfaced in the Hitler-fixated “tea party” movement (which she endorses in her book). It’s a politics of victimization and sloganeering with no policy solutions required beyond the conservative mantra of No Taxes. Its standard-bearer can make stuff up with impunity: “Thanks, but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere”; Obama’s “palling around with terrorists”; health care “death panels.”
After the Palin-McCain ticket lost, conservative pundits admonished her to start studying the issues. If “Going Rogue” and its promotional interviews are any indication, she has ignored their entreaties during her months at liberty. Last week, Greta Van Susteren chastised Oprah for not asking Palin “one policy question,” but when Barbara Walters did ask some, Palin either recycled Dick Cheney verbatim (Obama is “dithering”) or ran aground. Her argument for why “Jewish settlements” should be expanded on the West Bank was that “more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.” It was unclear what she was talking about — unless it was the “rapture” theology that requires the mass return of Jews to settle the Holy Land as a precondition for the return of Christ.
The discredited neocon hacks who have latched on to Palin as a potential ticket back into power have their work cut out for them. But it’s better for Palin’s purposes to remain as blank a slate as possible anyway. Some of her most ardent supporters realize that she’ll drive still more independent voters away if she fills in too many details. And so Matthew Continetti, the author of the just-published “Persecution of Sarah Palin” and her most persistent cheerleader after William Kristol, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that her role model for 2012 should be Bob McDonnell, the new Republican governor-elect of Virginia, who won on “a bipartisan, center-right approach.”
What Continetti means is that Palin could still somehow fudge her history as McDonnell did; his campaign kept his career-long history as a political acolyte and financial beneficiary of Pat Robertson on the down-low. Even the far right has figured out that homophobia is a turnoff to swing voters, which is why Palin goes out of her way in “Going Rogue” to remind us she has her very own lesbian friend. (What’s left unsaid is that the book’s credited ghost writer, Lynn Vincent, labeled homosexuality as “deviance” in her own writings for World, the evangelical magazine.)
But no matter how much Palin tries to pass for “center-right,” she’s unlikely to fool that vast pool of voters left, right and center who have already written her off as unqualified for the White House. The G.O.P. establishment knows this, and is frightened. The demographic that Palin attracts is in decline; there’s no way the math of her fan base adds up to an Electoral College victory.
Yet among Republicans she still ties Mitt Romney in the latest USA Today/Gallup survey, with 65 percent giving her serious presidential consideration, just behind the 71 for her evangelical rival, Mike Huckabee. The crowds lining up in the cold for her book tour are likely to be the most motivated to line up at the polls in G.O.P. primaries. They don’t speak the same language as Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michael Steele, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner or, for that matter, McCain. They are more likely to heed Palin salesmen like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh than baffled Bush administration grandees like Peter Wehner, who last week called Palin “a cultural figure much more than a political one” on the Web site of the establishment conservative organ Commentary.
Culture is politics. Palin is at the red-hot center of age-old American resentments that have boiled up both from the ascent of our first black president and from the intractability of the Great Recession for those Americans who haven’t benefited from bailouts. As Palin thrives on the ire of the left, so she does from the disdain of Republican leaders who, with a condescension rivaling the sexism they decry in liberals, belittle her as a lightweight or instruct her to eat think-tank spinach.
The only person who can derail Palin is Palin herself. Should she not self-destruct, she will doom G.O.P. hopes of a 2012 comeback. But the rest of the country cannot rest easy. The rage out there is larger than Palin and defies partisan labeling. Her ever-present booster Continetti, writing in The Weekly Standard, suggested that she recast the century-old populist outrage of William Jennings Bryan by adopting the message “You shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of Goldman Sachs.” If Obama can’t tamp down that rage across the political map, Palin will at the very least pave the way for a demagogue with less baggage to pick up her torch.