A scary search for the Real Sarah Palin

The ghost of US President Sarah Palin was stalking the streets of Sydney this week.

Okay, you say, she hasn’t died, and she hasn’t become president so please explain (that was the famous expression of the politician who’s come closest to replicating Sarah Palin in Australia).

The spirit of Sarah the Future President came courtesy of the American journalist and author, Joe McGinniss, who is in Australia for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and to talk about his book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, a search as successful as it is scary.

It’s scary because she was almost elected Vice-President of the United States, running on a ticket with Senator John McCain, who plucked her out of her native Alaska, where she was a big fish in a small golden pond, to appeal to young, conservative voters across the nation.

She was thrust upon the national and world stage with her speech to the Republican Convention in Minneapolis on September 3, 2008, which “was hailed as ‘dazzling’ and ‘electrifying’ by a national media that had at first viewed her with scepticism,” as McGinniss puts it.

I was part of the sceptical international media, watching her speech as it came into Sky News Australia, but when she told her famous joke — “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!” — I realised she had the Republicans eating out of her hand. What saved Americans from making a mistake as big as electing Richard Nixon were her subsequent appearances before the media, which proved she had the mentality of a pit bull as well as its aggression.

Joe McGinniss explains the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, going back to the fateful day when he moved next door to the Palins on May 22, 2010. By then she was no longer the Governor of Alaska, but a commentator for Fox News and a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

McGinniss was about to sign a lease on an apartment in Wasilla, Alaska to write his book on Palin, when Catherine Taylor called with an offer to rent her property. It was an offer to good to refuse – a house next to the Palins, which they had rented until the previous October. His friends told him no one could be that lucky, but when Sarah and Todd Palin found out, his luck ran out.

The first encounter with Sarah’s husband, Todd, wearing a “First Dude” t-shirt, ends with him telling McGinniss he won’t be staying there long, and Sarah suggesting on her Facebook page that he would be peering over his deck to look into her young daughter’s bedroom. Despite his friendship with Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, McGinniss is bucketed by Fox’s Glenn Beck, who calls him “creepy” and “a stalker,” and anonymous social media commentators beg someone to burn his house down. Ironically, McGinniss had asked Todd Palin to call Roger Ailes as a reference.

In the belief that “good fences make good neighbours,” as Robert Frost put it, Todd starts building a new fence twice as high as the old one. Joe McGinniss welcomes it, thinking it will calm Todd and Sarah down. That doesn’t happen for quite a while, but McGinniss continues to talk to everyone he can about the life of Sarah Palin (and many are afraid to talk about the Palins).

IN PALINLAND, TRUTH IS THE FIRST CASUALTY

McGinniss chronicles Palin’s childhood, her dysfunctional family, and her baptism with her mother in the chilly waters of a nearby lake. The Pastor of the Wasilla Assembly of God church, Paul Riley, who performed the baptisms, said: “Sarah loved the Lord with all her heart.” Her high school days were spent as an athlete, a basketball star who preached religion to her fellow players.  She inscribed Biblical verses in her friends’ yearbooks, and said in her own that her ambition was to broadcast sporting events alongside Howard Cosell, then one of America’s most famous and controversial commentators.

As McGinniss gathered this information, the threats continued, with Glenn Beck leading the charge, saying “I think Todd deserves a medal for why he doesn’t go over there and punch that guy in the face.” McGinniss pointed out that Alaska’s mosquitoes posed more of a threat to Sarah’s children than he did, but “in Palinland, as in war, truth is the first casualty.”

The man who succeeded Sarah Palin as mayor of Wasilla, Verne Rupright, is the first person to ask McGinniss if he wants a gun. He declines, but just about everybody, who’s not a friend of the Palins, makes a similar offer. And if it wasn’t a gun, they offered a blueberry pie. That’s the Alaskan way, says McGinniss, who wrote a book about the state, Going to Extremes, in 1980, adding in The Rogue: “People are so open and giving and trusting, and eager to help you in any possible way, that you quickly come to care about them and to want to help them in return.” The Palin family is the exception that proves the rule.

McGinniss details Palin’s political career, beginning with one of the strangest alliances ever, “dopers and boozers combined with Wasilla’s evangelical Christians to form Sarah’s political base” which resulted in her election as mayor in October 1996. Four days later, she welshed on a promise to appoint her campaign manager as deputy administrator, saying it wouldn’t look right because she was a friend. The real reason: the religious right wouldn’t accept her because she was pro-choice.

Sarah Palin was very good at scheming and lying and saying one thing and doing another. In other words, she was an excellent politician. As e.e. cummings wrote: “A politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man.” In this case, “a woman.”  It led one of the local papers, the Frontiersman, to write an editorial about Palin’s days as mayor: “Welcome to Kingdom Palin, the land of no accountability.” And another that said: “Wasilla is led by a woman who will tolerate no one who questions her actions or her authority … Mayor Palin fails to have a firm grasp of something very simple: the truth.”

The “Real Sarah Palin” always spoke lovingly of her children and used them at every photo opportunity. Although the “First Dude” had his own problems, he looked after the children when Sarah didn’t.  The legislative director of her gubernatorial campaign, John Bitney, who she later sacked, summed it up: “Todd was both the matriarch and patriarch in that family. That can be a compliment or not, depending on how you want to look at it, but it’s the truth. He did the diapers when the kids were young. He was the disciplinarian. Sarah was all about the photo op.”

Her ambition led her to contest the governorship, which she won in 2005, and she had her sights set on the White House. And a former mayor of Fairbanks, Jim Whitaker, said she had the right stuff when it came to lifting a crowd: “I’ve never seen anyone who could connect with thousands of people the way she can. It’s just too bad she’s unwilling and unable to understand issues.”

You know the rest of the story. Joe McGinnis writes about  how at one of the lowest points of Palin’s political career: “ … like an angel on a personal mission from her Heavenly Father, John McCain swooped down to tap her with his magic wand.”  Thankfully, the magic didn’t work and she didn’t make it to the White House (well, not yet anyway). But she did become a commentator for Fox News, write a book, called Going Rogue, about the presidential campaign, and she continues to keep her name in the limelight. Mitt Romney will lose to Barack Obama later this year, and Sarah Palin will think about a presidential run in 2016, when all the negative publicity has died down. Well, that’s my theory anyway.

As for Joe McGinniss, he wrote on his blog (www.joemcginniss.com) earlier this year: “Andrew Sullivan (British author and columnist), among others, says he thinks The Rogue played a large part in keeping Sarah out of the current race for the Republican nomination. Whether or not that’s true, she is out. In fact, she is done. And I’m done with her.”

Joe, I’m not so sure. If Richard Nixon can make a comeback, and be elected by the American people, so can Sarah Palin. But I sincerely hope you’re right!

On a happier note, after his entertaining Writers’ Festival session with Annabel Crabb yesterday, I got a minute and a half with Joe McGinniss when he signed The Rogue for me. We discussed sportswriters in Philadelphia (he used to be one for The Inquirer newspaper), and his book, Heroes, in which he looks for heroes in America and can’t find one, but does come up with a quote from Arthur Miller about writing and why he still labored to create: “It’s agony. But everyone has agony. The difference is that I try to take my agony home and teach it to sing.” We agree it’s a great quote. And he asked me when I was going back to Philadelphia and how long I was staying. “I’ve been here 41 years,” I replied. “I guess that means you’re staying.” We both laughed.

2 thoughts on “A scary search for the Real Sarah Palin

    • Thanks, Bill. The only thing I left out of the piece is the controversy surrounding the birth of Sarah Palin’s fifth child, Trig, born prematurely with Down Syndrome in April 2008 after her water broke in Dallas. Twenty-nine and a half hours later, Trig was born in Wasilla, after Palin gave a speech to the Republican Governors Conference in Dallas, then caught a connecting flight to Seattle, another flight to Anchorage, Alaska and then drove home and gave birth in Wasilla hospital. Andrew Sullivan, author and columnist, wrote about it in his blog, The Daily Dish, then connected to The Atlantic Monthly, and talked about allegations that Trig was not her baby: “If Palin has lied about this, it’s the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics.” Joe answered a question about the allegations at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Saturday, and said the circumstances were difficult to understand. In The Rogue, McGinniss said: “Nothing has surprised me more than finding that so many people, even some who like and admire Sarah, have doubts.” Sullivan continues to write about Palin in his blog, The Dish, in The Daily Beast. His latest, The Insanity of Sarah Palin, points to an Obama campaign ad: http://bit.ly/wmRa3C Worth watching. For anyone interested in the unanswered question about Trig, I suggest reading Joe’s book and Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

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