Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Going Rogue: An American Life

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 30, 2011

“Anybody that comes to Juneau and says, I’m not going to do my party’s bidding deserves credit. We had some very dark years under Frank Murkowski, and it has been nice to see something different.”

Unlike politicians who have to fall back on their ancestors for middle-class anecdotes, Palin lived them. In the seventies, her father took them from rural Idaho to greater opportunities in Alaska, but it wasn’t her father who built their family business: it was Todd and Sarah.

RecommendationWorth reading
Length413 pages
Book Rating7
Treating reporters like paparazzi

In the news as I finished reading this book, the press was trailing behind the Palin’s summer bus trip; they peed in the bushes, rushed red lights to keep up, and desperately chased Sarah Palin and her family up the east coast.

And the news headlines on Memeorandum complained that Sarah Palin treated the press as if they were paparazzi.1

If you don’t want to see the human behind the media caricature, Going Rogue is not the book for you. I expected Going Rogue to be interesting because of the politics she lived through and continues to live through. But I think this is also the first autobiography I’ve read by someone who grew up the same time I did and in similar circumstances. Our grandparents were more likely to have served in WWII than our parents. And if our grandparents didn’t serve, it’s because they were too old, and lived in an almost incomprehensibly different time.

And it isn’t just the time she grew up in but the place. I grew up in Michigan and I knew people who went to warmer climes for college, and who returned to Michigan within a semester or two.2

Perhaps influenced by her more practical background, Palin’s political history is marked by a focus on policy rather than power. She’s not in this game to be a ruler, and highlights other voters concerns about such politicians:

I once heard a voter bark at Mayor Stein that he wasn’t impressed with his public administration degree. “I can’t support a guy whose degree is in public management,” the guy hollered after the debate. “The public does not need to be managed!

At every stage in her political career, there’s been some policy that drove her to run for office. In the governor’s race, it was against Alaska’s corrupt cronyist oil politics. Twice, when being in an office hindered that policy, she’s stepped aside so as to be able to speak out and further the policies she cares about. The first time she did this was as a member of Alaska’s then-corrupt Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The law said she couldn’t talk about the corruption while she was a member of the AOGCC, so she quit.

Her philosophy can be summed up by something she wrote about some of the mistakes she made during the national campaign: “You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”

And, more pointedly, by something a friend of the family said to her as she started out in politics:

Curtis Jr. had once shared an observation with me: “In politics you’re either eating well or sleeping well.” I wanted to sleep well.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is a pretty good example of Curtis Jr.’s maxim. The AOGCC seemed designed to foster corruption. There were three independent commissioners, and they were forbidden to talk about what the other commissioners did. If you’re an honest commissioner, you can either give in and join the corruption, remain silent and effectively condone it, break the law and risk becoming another in a long line of whistleblowers who end up facing prosecution and becoming neutralized because of it, or resign and wait for the gag order to lift. Palin chose the latter.

As governor, she brought oil negotations into the public eye—the law had always required this, but her corrupt predecessors ignored the law. Oil in Alaska is owned by Alaskans in a public trust—it’s part of their constitution. But the deals previous administrations had made with the oil industry were closed-door deals that didn’t respect this. Palin’s administration completely rewrote the backdoor oil agreements. In the face of an industry smear campaign she still managed to build bipartisan support and got it passed.

We crunched and recrunched the numbers, trying to predict every conceivable economic scenario and producer loophole. Numbers don’t lie; the ACES formula was best for all parties.

ACES represented a major political shift in the role of government… In the special legislative session held in October and November 2007, legislators on both sides of the aisle agreed with our approach. The measure passed with overwhelming public support. Of course, I took the political hits as the oil companies launched a smear campaign that we were raising taxes on industry. But we persevered, and I’m glad we did. A year later, vindication came when industry officials admitted that the legislation was working and had even significantly increased their profits while spurring them to invest more in exploration and new development in Alaska. We had struck the sweet spot where industry and the public interest were mutually served.

Her phenomenal support in Alaska was also bipartisan.

In the first two years of my administration, there would be many bipartisan victories. I had a fine working relationship with state house Democrats, a fact that quite often showed up in the press.

Interviewed for a story on women in leadership, House Minority Leader Beth Kertula, a Juneau Democrat, told Newsweek she was impressed that I had invited members of her party back to my office three times over ten hours to hammer out a solution on AGIA.

In February 2008, Anchorage Democrat Les Gara, a representative, told Alaska magazine, “Anybody that comes to Juneau and says, I’m not going to do my party’s bidding deserves credit. We had some very dark years under Frank Murkowski, and it has been nice to see something different.”

That would change once she became the Republican VP nominee.

The national campaign

Ever since reading both The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hell’s Angels, I’ve been fascinated by two observers describing the same scene from different perspectives. In this case, both Joe the Plumber and Governor Palin report incidences that point to a very disorganized campaign by McCain “headquarters”. Like Joe Wurzelbacher, she noticed that “headquarters” didn’t seem to be very organized. The very word became a joke.

On the B Team, folks had taken to making quote marks with their fingers every time they said the word.

Headquarters definitely wasn’t prepared for the partisan media attacks. They should have been: The New York Times had already attacked McCain with completely unfounded allegations of infidelity. In this case, partisans in the news just made stuff up; they created a caricature and then reported on the caricature.

I never said I didn’t support contraception. I did. I [was] a longtime subscriber to the philosophy of Feminists for Life, a group of pro-life feminists who do not oppose contraception.

Her convention speech is justifiably praised. She attributes it to a team effort, and goes out of her way to praise the rest of the team.

Writing my convention speech was really a team effort, and the captain of the team was an ace speechwriter named Matthew Scully. … A political conservative, he is a bunny-hugging vegan and gentle, green soul who I think would throw himself in the path of a semitruck to save a squirrel.

He reminded me of the classic absentminded professor. Intellectually brilliant, he walked around looking up at the sky a lot, as if there were ideas up there he was pulling down, jotting them down on the loose slips of paper that always peeked out of his pockets.

Somehow all this blends into Scully’s special gift for writing. Throughout the campaign, the speeches he handed me were like poetry, so smooth, such amazing flow. But the convention speech he wrote was in a league of its own.

What did she do just before giving the speech? Change Trig’s diapers. “It’s the kind of thing that keeps you grounded.”

After the 2008 elections

Unfortunately for the Palins, the media harassment didn’t end after the elections. She had become a target, and calm, out-of-the-way Alaska was no longer safe from the lower 48. Up until 2008 her kids still could walk to school. That stopped once she realized that the media frenzy wasn’t going to end along with the campaign.

“Mom, remember those reporters who came on the campaign plane with us? You know, the ones Nicolle said didn’t like us very much? They just interviewed me on the sidewalk.”

That was Piper’s last independent walk from school.

The media wasn’t about to let her regroup. Even an Atlantic writer continued supporting conspiracy theories about the birth of her son Trig.

The media also fed the extreme left in Alaska, and used the reforms enacted by the reform wave she was part of to harass her. In a normal environment, the ethics rules would have been adjusted over time to ensure fairness to both sides. In the media pile-on following 2008, this was impossible. The left filed frivolous suit after frivolous suit; every one was dismissed or ruled unfounded. But while the legal onslaught continued, it disrupted not just the Alaskan government, but also the Palin family:

The saddest part of the whole travel issue is that these complaints broke up my base of support by separating me from my family. The critics had already succeeded in keeping Todd away. He kept his distance from the office now because they had accused him unfairly of being the “Shadow Governor.” Now travel questions forced us to minimize our trips. Piper, Trig, and I stayed in Juneau while Todd, Bristol, and Willow lived in Wasilla.

For all its obsession, the media was completely blindsided by Palin’s resignation. “They just couldn’t believe that a politician would willingly give up power and title for good reasons.” It’s still difficult for a lot of the media to believe. But even more outside their understanding, Palin made this decision knowing it would harm any hopes of political power later.

I prayed hard because I knew that if I resigned it might very well end any future political career.

I hope that it doesn’t, however, because Palin’s understanding of how economies stay strong is sorely needed in today’s recession.

We are currently in the midst of an economic crisis, and the recovery is slow in coming. But I do have fundamental faith in the American entrepreneurial spirit. We go through booms and busts, and America comes out stronger. Just as wildfires in Alaska burn away deadfall to make way for new growth, so too does the business cycle undergo a process of “creative destruction.” We let some dying businesses fail as new businesses emerge. The horse and buggy gradually disappeared after Henry Ford introduced an affordable automobile. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from companies in the business of making LPs to eight-tracks to cassette tapes to compact discs to MP3s. My kids finally got me to retire the portable CD player I lugged around while jogging. I now carry an iPod, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

The marketplace changes.

This is true compassionate conservatism: the compassion to let new entrepreneurs strive rather than strangle new entrepreneurs by bailing out failed companies; the compassion to allow people to make a better world rather than bail out the failures. That’s how an economy grows.

  1. Fortunately, the Palins took a bus rather than a Mercedes-Benz W140.

  2. Me, I went from Michigan to Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes recreated Michigan’s lake effect disappointingly well.

Going Rogue: An American Life

Recommendation: Worth reading