Pursuing Palin

The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, by Joe McGinniss. 321 pp. Crown Publishers. $25.

Sarah Palin's sprint from Wasilla housewife to national political sensation may have no parallel in modern American politics, but Joe McGinniss's book "The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin" proves that she didn't come out of nowhere. God gave Palin her first push toward politics when she was a mere 24 years old, as her spiritual mentor Mary Glazier explained at a religious conference in June 2008.

"God began to speak to her about entering politics," McGinniss quotes Glazier. "We began to pray for Sarah. We felt she was the one God had selected."

Palin apparently had the Lord on her side when she won the first of two terms on the Wasilla City Council in 1992, when she won the first of two terms as the mayor of Wasilla in 1996, and ultimately when she won the governorship of Alaska in 2006. God seems to have been AWOL from her campaign in 2002, when she lost the race for lieutenant governor by a hair.

Palin doesn't discourage talk about the role divine intervention has played in her personal and political progress. "My life is in God's hands," McGinniss quotes her saying in 2008, after the McCain-Palin ticket went down. "If he's got doors open for me ... I'm going to go through those doors."

If God is the doorman, think of Joe McGinniss as the bouncer, doing his best to oust Palin from the political club and boot her back to Wasilla. Drawing on scores of interviews and voluminous readings of contemporary Alaskan history and journalism, he assembles a portrait of Palin as a daffy but savvy megalomaniac who excels at keeping herself in the public eye--the Christ-drunk Paris Hilton of politics, if you will. He concludes his book by comparing Palin's political gyrations to a "lap dance" and her career to "a freaky sideshow performed on a carnival midway" until John McCain transformed her "into what many still seem to see as the greatest show on earth" by choosing her as a running mate.

McGinniss's animus for Palin courses through every page, making "The Rogue" comparable to other book-length political hatchet jobs like Dwight Macdonald's "Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth," Victor Lasky's "J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth," Anthony Summers's "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," Roger Morris's "Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America," Kitty Kelley's book "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty" and, of course, McGinniss's earlier effort, "The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy."

To call a book a hatchet job is not necessarily to disparage it. Some subjects can't be accurately rendered in a fair and balanced sketch, demanding instead the defacement that Lucian Freud brought to portraiture. That said, a smartly swung sharp blade makes for better literary blood sport than the butt-end bludgeonry McGinniss visits upon Palin and her husband, Todd. McGinniss begins to lose control of his hatchet when he claims that unnamed citizens recall Palin's tenure as mayor as "nothing short of a reign of terror" and that "a small minority" of people he talked to fear that the "vicious and vengeful" Palin can still punish her critics, even though she holds no political office today.

O.K., Mayor Palin fired a bunch of city employees, but she had every right to do so. She also drove out other government workers she disliked; leased a fancy S.U.V.; hassled the city librarian about gay-friendly books in the library's collection; deafened herself to her critics; and generally bullied her way around Wasilla and later Juneau, where as governor she pressured officials to fire her former brother-in-law from the state police. (McGinniss assesses Palin's governorship in a backhanded way, writing that her impulsive vice-presidential campaign "destroyed her forever in Alaska.") But Palin's overbearing ways hardly make her an Alaskan Il Duce. Had she been smart enough to garb her administration in the traditional language of political "reorganization" and soft-pedaled her attempts to curate at the library, perhaps the Wasilla citizens who talked to McGinniss would remember her with the kind of grudging respect some New Yorkers extend to Rudy Giuliani, another pushy, imperious and tone-deaf politician.

The classic hatchet job overrelies on unnamed sources because the truth doesn't always permit attribution when spoken. But even hatchet jobs must take care to make unnamed sources the raisins in the cake, not the cake itself. I counted at least 50 unnamed sources dishing to McGinniss in "The Rogue," which is a lopsided ratio in a book that's only 321 pages long. These anonymice tell us that the Palin children are foulmouthed and feral and drug hounds, that Todd Palin has cast his line and caught many a lady while working at his family's fishing business in Dillingham, that Sarah suffers from extreme mood swings, that the Palins appear to have partaken of cocaine, that the Palin marriage was of the shotgun variety and is now bloodless and stroppy, and that Todd does all the parenting. ("She couldn't do grilled cheese. She'd burn water," one nameless source says.)

One person McGinniss does get on the record to make some news is Glen Rice, a late-1980s University of Michigan basketball star, who doesn't quarrel with McGinniss's finding that he had sex with Palin in 1987, when he was playing in an Anchorage tournament and she was working on the sports desk of a local television station. Knowing he's hit tabloid gold, McGinniss showcases his find on Page 25. "So you never had the feeling she felt bad about having sex with a black guy?" McGinniss asks Rice after reporting two pages earlier that "people of color" made Palin nervous at the time. "No, no, no, nothing like that," Rice says, simultaneously coming off as a cad and a gentleman. "She was a gorgeous woman. Super nice. I was blown away by her. Afterward, she was a big crush that I had. I talked about her for a long time. Only good things." An unnamed Palin friend tells McGinniss that Sarah "freaked out afterward. Hysterical, crying, totally flipped out. The thing that people remember is her freakout, how completely crazy she got"--because she had had sex with a black man.

It's fine for a hatchet artist to rely on self-reference to make his points, but it's never wise for the author to pay an excess of attention to himself as opposed to the subject, as McGinniss does. As most Palin observers know, McGinniss had the good fortune to score a rental 15 feet from Sarah and Todd's Wasilla home from which to research his book. This made him the beneficiary of huge publicity, both positive and negative, when the Palins overreacted to his presence by basically calling him a stalker. McGinniss lards his book with the fallout from the feud--the conservative talk-show denunciations, the Palins' sniping, veiled death threats, the demonstration of support from Alaskans who thought, reasonably, that he had the right to live where he wanted to live--without really advancing the story. (Disclosure: I applauded McGinniss's location, location, location moxie in my Slate column at the time. I've also corresponded with him several times over the last few years, but I have never met him.)

By book's end, I felt a little like the Palins--eager for McGinniss to move out of my neighborhood. He establishes that Sarah Palin's ambitions dwarf her talents, that she's the world's oldest mean girl and that she has a tendency to become a liability to even her closest allies. But no hatchet job was needed to convince an average reader of that. The only fresh meat McGinniss cuts in "The Rogue" is connected to his knuckles.

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