Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Post-Modernist at theTimes Hails Sarah's Claim on Her Truth
Sarah Palin Is Coming to Town
By STANLEY FISH
When I walked into the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan last week, I headed straight for the bright young thing who wore an “Ask Me” button, and asked her to point me to the section of the store where I might find Sarah Palin’s memoir, “Going Rogue: An American Life.” She looked at me as if I had requested a copy of “Mein Kampf” signed in blood by the author, and directed me to the nearest Barnes and Noble, where, presumably, readers of dubious taste and sensibility could find what they wanted.
Going Rogue cover Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times
A few days later, I attended a seminar on political and legal theory where a distinguished scholar observed that every group has its official list of angels and devils. As an example, he offered the fact (of which he was supremely confident) that few, if any, in the room were likely to be Sarah Palin fans. By that time I had begun reading Palin’s book, and while I wouldn’t count myself a fan in the sense of being a supporter, I found it compelling and very well done.
My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the book were a biography, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. “Going Rogue,” however, is an autobiography, and while autobiographers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves — the kind of persons they are — and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving (and I don’t mean to imply that Palin is either), they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth. As I remarked in a previous column, autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray themselves.
The questions to ask then are (1) Does Palin succeed in conveying to her readers the kind of person she is? and (2) Does she do it in a satisfying and artful way? In short, is the book a good autobiographical read? I would answer “yes” to both.
First, the art. The book has an architectonic structure that is built around a single moment, the moment when Palin receives a call from John McCain inviting her to be the vice-presidential candidate of the Republican party. When we first hear about the call it is as much a surprise to us as it was (at least as reported) to her, because for six pages she has been recounting a wonderful family outing at the Alaska State Fair. When her phone rings, she hopes it might be a call from her son Track, a soldier soon to deploy to Iraq, but “it was Senator John McCain asking if I wanted to help him change history.”
And that’s the last we hear of it for 200 pages. In between we hear a lot about Wasilla, high school, basketball, college, marriage, children, Down syndrome, Alaska politics, the environment, a daughter’s pregnancy. The re-entry of John McCain into the narrative on page 208 introduces Palin’s account of the presidential campaign and its aftermath, especially her decision to resign the governorship before the end of her term. In the epilogue, another 200 pages on, the famous call serves as a bookend: “It is one year ago this week that I got the call from John McCain.”
Paradoxically, the effect of the neatly spaced references to the call is to de-emphasize it as a dramatic moment. It is presented not as a climax, but as an interruption of matters more central to Palin’s abiding concerns — her family, Alaska’s prosperity, energy policy. (She loves to rehearse the kind of wonkish details we associate with Hillary Clinton, whom she admires.)
Indeed, it is a feature of this narrative that events we might have expected to be foregrounded are elided or passed over. Palin introduced herself to the nation with a powerful, electrifying speech accepting McCain’s invitation to join the ticket. It gets half a sentence (“I gave my speech”). Chapter Two ends with Palin, no longer a mayor, wondering what she is going to do next. Four paragraphs into Chapter Three we learn, almost parenthetically, that she had decided to run for governor. (When and how did that happen?) The only event that receives an extended discussion is her resignation. It is important to her because as an act it reflects on her integrity, and she has to be sure (as she eventually was) that she was doing it for the right reasons.
Resigning was a moral act for which she was responsible. The vice-presidential candidacy just happened to her; her account of it reads like an extended “what-I-did-on-my summer-and fall-vacation” essay. For many politicians, family life is sandwiched in between long hours in public service. Palin wants us to know that for her it is the reverse. Political success is an accident that says nothing about you. Success as a wife, mother and citizen says everything.
Do I believe any of this? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she does, and that her readers feel they are hearing an authentic voice. I find the voice undeniably authentic (yes, I know the book was written “with the help” of Lynn Vincent, but many books, including my most recent one, are put together by an editor). It is the voice of small-town America, with its folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric (itself a rhetorical trope), love of country and instinctive (not doctrinal) piety. It says, here are some of the great things that have happened to me, but they are not what makes my life great and American. (“An American life is an extraordinary life.”) It says, don’t you agree with me that family, freedom and the beauties of nature are what sustain us? And it also says, vote for me next time. For it is the voice of a politician, of the little girl who thought she could fly, tried it, scraped her knees, dusted herself off and “kept walking.”
In the end, perseverance, the ability to absorb defeat without falling into defeatism, is the key to Palin’s character. It’s what makes her run in both senses of the word and it is no accident that the physical act of running is throughout the book the metaphor for joy and real life. Her handlers in the McCain campaign wouldn’t let her run (a mistake, I think, even at the level of photo-op), no doubt because they feared another opportunity to go “off script,” to “go rogue.”
But run she does (and falls, but so what?), and when it is all over and she has lost the vice presidency and resigned the governorship, she goes on a long run and rehearses in her mind the eventful year she has chronicled. And as she runs, she achieves equilibrium and hope: “We’ve been through amazing days, and really, there wasn’t one thing to complain about. I feel such freedom, such hope, such thankfulness for our country, a place where nothing is hopeless.”
The message is clear. America can’t be stopped. I can’t be stopped. I’ve stumbled and fallen, but I always get up and run again. Her political opponents, especially those who dismissed Ronald Reagan before he was elected, should take note. Wherever you are, you better watch out. Sarah Palin is coming to town.