No one and nothing polarizes her nation—you betcha!—like Sarah Palin. Even Barack Obama, who has admirers loving enough to hand him a Nobel Peace Prize for good intentions alone and enemies virulent enough to deny he’s a legitimate President at all, can’t match the contrasting depths of adulation and vitriol Palin invokes. In the four days between John McCain choosing the unknown Alaska governor as his running mate in late August 2008 and her speech to the Republican convention, Palin utterly (if temporarily) transformed the presidential election campaign. Anti-abortion and pro-gun, a moose-hunting Christian hockey mom, she seemed to supporters to radiate with what one called the same raw political talent “we hated and admired in Bill Clinton.” The vice-presidential candidate galvanized her party’s conservative base and gave the Republicans a bounce in the polls. Political opponents, especially women, reacted with fear and loathing to the perceived threat. Heather Mallick, writing on the CBC website, was hardly beyond the pale of standard anti-Palin rhetoric when she sniffed at Palin’s “porn actress look” while condemning her for “terrible” parenting.
A year later, astonishingly little has changed. Palin remains intensely newsworthy. The handful of special elections held this year were scrutinized in light of how they might influence her chances for the Republican nomination in 2012. The ramblings—and upcoming Playgirl appearance—of Levi Johnston, the self-described “f–kin’ redneck” father of Palin’s grandson who is now estranged from the Palin family, are parsed primarily in terms of whether they inspire ridicule or sympathy for Palin. And her eagerly awaited autobiography, scheduled for release on Nov. 17, has enough pre-orders to rank No. 2 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Publisher Harper-Collins is guarding the text as closely as if it were a new Da Vinci Code.
That’s not the only Dan Brown touch. On Nov. 16 Palin will appear on Oprah, her nation’s true mark of celebrity arrival. And not only is Tina Fey rumoured to be dusting off her red Palin suit for new Saturday Night Live skits, the burgeoning Palin publishing industry has been busy. Palin’s own Going Rogue: An American Life is matched with the essay collection Going Rouge: An American Nightmare. They have similar titles and similar covers: a smiling Palin, in trademark red, looks off into the distance—but on Rogue the backdrop is white clouds in a blue sky, while on Rouge black clouds flash lightning. Rouge comes out the same day as Rogue. Arriving earlier are Matthew Continetti’s pro-Palin tome, The Persecution of Sarah Palin—which also has a red-clad Palin on the cover—and Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, two reporters who followed her campaign. The latter is the only work with even a pretense of neutrality—not to mention a dust jacket with Palin dressed in something other than red.
The writers offer mostly renewed takes on old flashpoints. Continetti’s fan letter hits a few reasonable notes—yes, Palin’s flute-playing act during the 1984 Miss Alaska beauty pageant is part of the reason her nomination outright horrified urban sophisticates—but has no answer for those who felt she was, if not evil incarnate, clearly not up to the job. As for Going Rouge, it’s most interesting for showing how many opponents, again particularly women, remain locked in Mallick-level rage. Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, writes bizarrely about her “Sarah Palin nightmares”—in one of them, Palin and her friends “wore the claws of drowned and starved polar bears around their necks”—while JoAnn Wypijewski, noting that “a man fiddling with his wedding ring in the presence of another woman” is clearly up to no good, says McCain was doing just that as he introduced his VP choice.
The temperature is considerably lower in Conroy and Walshe’s work. They keep the focus on her weaknesses—including an overweening self-confidence that, they say, won’t permit her to admit she has things to learn before tackling the presidency—and her strengths. Palin far outstrips other Republicans in her ability to draw crowds, raise money and start a national uproar over “death panels” via her Facebook page. She clearly has an intuitive understanding of the fears and hopes of millions of Americans: come Nov. 17, as the Sarah Palin Circus, Part II, gets rolling, the burning political question will be whether her memoir adds or detracts from that connection.