One way to segregate a roomful of normally friendly people is to throw out the name of Sarah Palin for discussion. Sparks fly! Flames fill the room! Before long, there is little left to talk about. Add a little heat to the fire by moving next door to her for several months to conduct research for a book about her, in the small Alaskan town of Wasilla where local politics and gossip are blood sports, and you have a recipe for a conflagration.
When the news broke over a year ago that Sarah Palin was being stalked by a journalist who moved into a rented home next door to Palin and her family, admittedly, it was unsettling. To think someone would go to this extreme just to add more fuel to the media fire that was, and still is, Sarah Palin moved most people toward a level of cynicism about journalism never before held. It does not appear they have retreated from these toxic levels.
Joe McGinniss is no stranger to controversy. Blogging about the release of his new book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, McGinniss says his books are “shaped by events that haven’t occurred when (he) start(s) his work.” He adds, “nothing is predictable, thus everything is volatile.” Quoting Flannery O’Connor, McGinniss writes, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Plunging into a subject without wearing blinders is an engaging investigative method, and McGinniss, as he always manages to do, pushes the story forward in momentum while continuing to link new material with bits of information from past experiences and interviews. He weaves together portraits of public figures that serve as predictors of future behavior. In the case of Sarah Palin, the portrait is one of narcissism disguised as selfless public service, serious multigenerational family dysfunction disguised as family honor and values, and self-deceiving religious conviction as a call to political power.
McGinniss begins his book with an explanation of how he came to live next door to the Palin family. Trying to find a place to rent for several months while he conducted his research, he planned to get a temporary place in Anchorage. As luck would have it, a property owner in Wasilla (not among the Palin supporters) who was acquainted with McGinniss from a previous visit to the area contacted him about the availability of the property next door to Palin on Lake Lucille. It had previously been inhabited by a halfway house run amok in which the basement had been temporarily converted to a meth lab.
Within the confines of the halfway house were men who had served prison time for a variety of crimes, not exactly the kind of next door neighbors one would choose, though the Palins seemed to get along with them just fine. Later, when McGinniss had moved in to the vacant house, Sarah Palin, now in the glare of the national public spotlight day after day, took to her Facebook page to claim McGinniss was peering over the fence into her young daughter’s bedroom, something she had not previously complained about when the next door neighbors may have had such a history. McGinniss thoroughly discredits this claim in his book.
The ploy of Palin’s claim on Facebook worked to perfection as she endeared herself even more deeply to her national audience with the aid of Fox News’ Glenn Beck as well as the mainstream media. But, while the national audience was being whipped into a frenzy, Wasillans were rolling their eyes and concluding, “that’s just the Palins.”
The Rogue is the story of an ordinary person with average intelligence, motivated by a narcissistic vision, empowered by family bullies willing to dispose of personal integrity, who achieves a meteoric rise in popularity due to a naive and bone-headed political calculation by her political party’s presidential nominee. Packaged with outward beauty and possessing the “Mean Girl” experience to know how to use it, the portrait of Sarah Palin is one to admire from a distance. The closer you get, the feeling is not one of attraction but one of revulsion, if not pity.
The polarization which marks the life of Sarah Palin as she performs on the national stage is not narrowed by this book. It will add to that polarization, not by fabrication or biased authorship, but by McGinniss lifting the veil behind which both the Palin supporters and her opponents view her performance presently. Those who oppose her now will oppose her more. Those who support her now will continue to build a Palin apologetic that will serve their own self-deception further. Some of the supporters will quietly move to the other side because rationality will require it. Some will remain in her camp but would be relieved if she would simply “go away” from the spotlight. Others will stand firm in their support because of their admiration of her style, rather than her substance. Still others will stand firm in their support of her because she represents a blended ideology of religion and political power that does not normally reach this level of notoriety before it dies under the weight of human ethics and the undeniability of American pluralism.