A woman of substance and virtueA review of Going Rogue, by Sarah Palin

Going Rogue is the memoir of a politician concerned to settle scores and set the record straight. It is not a substantive work of policy, rather it takes the opportunity to speak at length directly to her constituency, without the distorting and malicious prism of the mainstream media, about her background and beliefs. Palin is manifestly a gifted politician but much more importantly she is a good politician, a woman of substance and virtue.

Although Palin was born outside of Alaska, she moved there while still an infant, and this Alaskan context dominates her understanding of the world. She writes movingly of the influence that her father had upon her upbringing, most especially the way in which she imbibed the virtues of hard work and determination. I was particularly impressed by the story she tells of a Basketball final in which she played through despite having a broken ankle, an ankle that still troubles her today. Todd Palin also comes across well – which isn’t a surprise – but what is a surprise is the way in which Palin tells a story against herself (concerning Faye Palin, her step-mother-in-law) in order to bring out her husband’s integrity. Indeed, the moral failure exposed in this anecdote is significantly worse than most of the criticisms thrown at Palin during the 08 campaign and the lesson she learned then has held her in very good stead ever since.

Palin says much about that campaign, not least her interview with Couric. This caused a great deal of pain and she spends quite a bit of time giving her perspective. Palin is intelligent and well read, but she is not an intellectual, and a format geared around stroking the egoes of the latter was never going to show her at her best. Yes she was stitched up, and it was an unfair presentation, but if you throw someone in the deep end it isn’t a surprise if they swallow some water, so I don’t think it can all be blamed on CBS. In contrast to Couric Palin is quite gracious about Tina Fay, and her sense of humour and innate humility are healthily shown by her appearance on SNL, and, indeed, her recent speech to the Gridiron club. What is most striking in her account of the campaign, however, is how far she was shackled by her β€œmanagers”, who seem to have been barely competent. The bias shown by the mainstream media during that campaign, and the vilification, misogyny and obstructionism thrown at Palin ever since, would have caused many people to have buckled completely. I found Palin convincing in her discussion of her resignation as Governor, which was, as her father put it, ‘not retreating but reloading’.

Some particular things that I like about Palin:

  • fiscal conservatism, which is pursued on a pragmatic basis. This is seen in her tenure as Governor, but can also, I would argue, be seen from her time as Mayor of Wasilla (a good discussion here). Palin is not an ideologue, she is a pragmatist, and is happy to use government for those things which government can do best, eg infrastructure. What impresses me is the way in which the costs of these measures was budgeted for, and the tax increases agreed with the voters, before anything happened. This seems like excellent governance to me;
  • public service: Palin believes in public service in a way that is remarkably refreshing. It has led to her taking some significant knocks along the way, but they only seem to have strengthened her determination;
  • this has depended on her personal courage and integrity, seen in all sorts of different ways. Taking on the CBC, resigning from the Oil and Gas commission and then the governorship, most of all in the decision, movingly discussed in the book, to keep Trig – Palin is manifestly someone who has been tried and tested and has proven her integrity to a degree significantly ahead of most politicians (which is surely a large part of her appeal);
  • social capital: Palin is a product of the proverbial small town. That has both bad and good sides. The bad side has already been mocked mercilessly – insularity, chauvinism, possible boorishness (eg her remarks about vegetarians in the book). Yet the good side has not been as widely recognised by the media. Small towns are schools of virtue and good judgement – Victor Hanson is good on this – and I wrote more about this aspect here: Alaskan values and the character of leadership. There is a contest here between the cynicism of ‘inside the Beltway’ (or the Westminster village) and the sincerity of a normal person;
  • her faith, which seems normal and real to me (obviously, to the secular elite, that just means I’m a fundamentalist too). I wouldn’t agree with how she describes the evolution/creation debate, but Palin’s faith seems genuine, personal and recognisable, and something on which she leans regularly.

The most significant area where I disagree with Palin relates to energy, where she seems to have a distorted sense of what is possible over the next ten to fifteen years (distorted, but doubtless very much the US mainstream). I think she is wise to pursue an ‘all of the above’ strategy on energy, the problem is that I have little hope that the status quo can be preserved, and she gives no evidence of realising the tough choices that will have to be faced. However, I have no doubt that her pragmatism and basic good sense will allow her to make good decisions when she is actually put on the spot. Her record has earned her the benefit of the doubt on that, at least for now.

In many ways Palin is the antithesis of Obama. Where she is unambiguously a product of the US mainstream, saturated in patriotic, even chauvinist values, Obama is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic man who seems to have little visceral attachment to the US at all. Where Palin is someone who has risen on the basis of her own drive and abilities, often at odds with party establishments, Obama is a creature of the political machine. Where Palin was hugely influenced by her father, Obama’s life has been marked by a search for a father figure. Where Palin is an outsider and reformer, Obama is an insider and elitist. If Palin succeeds in parlaying her current influence into electoral success for the Republicans in 2010 then I shall look forward to her taking on and then beating Obama for the presidency in 2012. She is not a person who will solve all the problems that the West faces – who could? – but I do believe that she would make an extremely able and effective President of the United States.

Our image of Palin

Erik’s comment got two ‘bravos’ from NMMNG and Al, so I guess it’s worth saying something about it up front. After all, as Erik says “as a priest, you [sh]ould find such hypocrisy, used as it is to violate the trust of the duty she has to the people of Alaska, to be utterly appalling”. Clearly if I did believe that Palin was hypocritical and corrupt I certainly would find it appalling. What I want to dig out by going through Erik’s comment is the way in which Palin is carrying the burden of all sorts of projections (including my own, no doubt) – which to my makes her a more interesting figure, not less.

Erik’s comments in italic:
I find your attachment to Gov. Palin very strange, as she evinces none of the honesty or forthrightness that you yourself do.


Her resignation is a strange mish-mash of motives, all of them mercurial and, apparently, obfuscatory at the least. First, she declared that she would not run for governor again, thus making herself a “lame duck” — one of the more enduring and not-at-all factually-based myths of American politics: that an exiting executive cannot get anything done. And then, citing her self-inflicted lame duckness, she stated that she would resign her term as governor 18 months early. This is nothing if not the political equivalent of “I’m taking my ball and going home!”

I don’t believe that’s a fair characterisation of her actions. I think she found herself drowning and unable to do the job she was elected to do; at the same time she has become a national figure and finds all sorts of opportunities for furthering her argument opening up there. I take her statement at face value, and I certainly don’t think that she’s finished as a political figure, rather the opposite. The ‘mercurial’ charge is an interesting one, as I don’t see her as being mercurial at all – on the contrary, this action seems entirely consistent with her publicly stated principles. It says something interesting about the perspective from which she is viewed that this action can be perceived as mercurial.

The citation of the ethics complaints by “outsiders” that “cost the state millions of dollars and thousands of employee hours” are likewise false or, when not false, exaggerations of a deliberately mendacious nature. Of the 15 ethics complaints filed against her in her tenure, only one was filed against her by non-Alaskans (a watchdog group arguing that the $150,000 worth of clothes and such given to her and her family by the RNC during the 2008 election constituted an illegal contribution under Alaska law). Likewise, the majority of complaints were filed by Alaskan Republican Party members.

To deal with this latter point briefly, it is unsurprising that the establishment Republican Party in Alaska (aka the Corrupt Bastards Club) has been fighting her and trying to diminish her – they were the ones who were ousted when she took charge.

The ethics investigations’ total cost to the state were just over US$275,000 — money that was owed by contract to the legal firms conducting the investigations whether they performed work during that time or not. Please allow me to reiterate that — outside auditors performed the actual investigations, not state employees, costing the state absolutely no work-hours from its employees whatsoever, for a total cost of a fraction of that Palin cites, and that from moneys that would have been paid no matter what.

This doesn’t seem to be true, see eg here, but I’m happy to explore it further. I would say, however, that it wouldn’t faze me if a politician maximised the ‘cost’ figure for political purposes, using the hourly cost of wages paid to public servants, as it is an absolutely standard practice. Whatever the true figure might be, the substantial point that Palin is making seems unarguable – much of her time, and her administration’s time, was being taken up with politically motivated “ethics” investigations. Again we have a sort of Rorschach test – there is enough material to compose a plausible-sounding case one way or another – and which way it is spun reveals the character of the person doing the spinning.

The most involved of the ethics complaints that was investigated was the one Palin filed against herself regarding “Troopergate” — whether or not she abused the power of her office in harassing her brother-in-law, a state trooper. She filed this complaint because, in so doing, the ethics investigation by statute superseded an investigation by the Alaska State Legislature that found she had indeed abused her office in this matter.

This seems a good example of a pejorative reading: the Alaska State Legislature pursued a politically motivated investigation of “Troopergate” which whilst finding that she had broken no law said that she had ‘abused her power’ (which was about as strong as could conceivably be defensible); the more thorough investigation gave her a totally clean bill of health. Seems like an astute and thoroughly defensible move to me.

In spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending herself, it is revealed that Palin did so unnecessarily — most of the complaints, according to the ethics board, could have been addressed by her simply drafting a letter in response to each one detailing her position and reasoning on each decision called into question. She chose to hire an expensive, out-of-state lawyer — hardly a fiscally responsible act, unless one ascribes to the maxim that a politician with national ambitions must never explain oneself.

Well, this is her own money being spent, not the state’s, and if she felt, given the amount of flak being sent her way (and the scrutiny that she was under) that she wanted to be properly advised, I can’t see that as a problem. It’s certainly not something that is either hypocritical or dishonest.

Rather than manage the transition of power, Palin has been fishing. She behaves at no time like a statewoman and always like a rather petulant country aristocrat. The wounds she complains about are self-inflicted, from making herself a lame-duck governor to choosing to abrogate her duty to her electorate to choosing to instigate the financial costs to her family.

This seems a bizarre comment to me. One of the things that I find admirable about Palin is her refusal to sling mud at people – which is surely stateswoman-like? Given that all of this brouhaha was triggered by her agreeing to a request to be the VP candidate, in what way was all this self-inflicted? It seems to me that her accession to VP ruined any possibility of her continuing as governor. Her resignation a) acknowledges the new reality; b) establishes Parnell as a sympathetic successor with time to build up an incumbency advantage; and c) liberates her to take her agenda and message into the wider US political scene. The idea that Palin is a ‘petulant country aristocrat’ I find mind-boggling.

Palin gives lip-service to ideals you hold dear. But in all ways, her conduct gives the lie to her rhetoric. I would think that, as a priest, you would find such hypocrisy, used as it is to violate the trust of the duty she has to the people of Alaska, to be utterly appalling.

Well, I just don’t see the hypocrisy, rather the opposite. I see someone who believes in ethically sound and small government who – within pragmatic constraints – has achieved that. (And NMMNG I don’t see her record in Wasilla as much of a counter-argument to that, the increased debt was primarily to develop the sports centre, ie it was a mortgage supported by a referendum. Wikipedia seems balanced on this.)

Thing is, Palin does seem to be a hook for all sorts of projections and neuroses (not to suggest the commenters here are neurotic even if the blog-author is) and bits and pieces of evidence can be scraped together to justify all sorts of calumnies. Some assert that Palin is a brain-dead, trailer-trash, slutty and incompetent waste of space. Some assert that Palin is a machiavellian careerist hard-hearted psycho-bitch who is only in it for publicity and personal advancement. Others – like me – see her as being someone who is making it up as she goes along, but who is guided by a normal and well-grounded set of values pursued with integrity and character. Obviously time will tell which of these caricatures is closest to the truth. Yet there is one thing that everyone (except for the lunatic fringe, eg Andrew Sullivan) agrees on – she chose not to have an abortion when she could have, and now there is Trig Palin. That seems more in line with my characterisation of her personality than the other two.