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Book World: Matthew Continetti reviews Sarah Palin's 'Going Rogue'

Republican Presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) at a rally in Hershey, Penn., in Oct. 2008.
Republican Presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) at a rally in Hershey, Penn., in Oct. 2008. (Melina Mara - The Washington Post)

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By Matthew Continetti
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

GOING ROGUE

An American Life

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By Sarah Palin

HarperCollins. 413 pp. $28.99

Like a lot of people, as soon as I got my copy of Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue," I immediately thought of the German literary critic Hans Robert Jauss.

Jauss is known as the father of critical reception theory. According to Jauss, every book is read in a social context. In his view, the reader's attitudes, beliefs, values and judgments are just as important as the text. Sometimes more.

Palin probably didn't set out to write a book that tested Jauss's thesis. But, in so many ways, the reaction to "Going Rogue" is as interesting as its content.

Palin's memoir is everything you'd expect from a politician who has no intention of leaving the national scene. With the aid of Lynn Vincent as her ghostwriter, she tells homespun stories, cracks a few jokes, provides juicy campaign gossip and lets the reader know where she stands on issues such as the right to life, government taxes and spending, health care and climate change. Like a good Republican, she invokes Ronald Reagan's name at every opportunity. The book is so packed with facts, history and encomiums about her state, she's practically a one-woman Alaska Division of Tourism: "We have the highest number of pilots per capita in the United States."

Palin tells her side of a story that's usually told by her opponents. It's the tale of how she rose from small-town mayor to the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee to her current status as global celebrity and one of the most polarizing figures in American politics. She writes in the warm, casual, occasionally corny voice that has made her so lovable to some and revolting to others. I'll go out on a limb and predict that if you like Palin, you'll like "Going Rogue" -- and if you don't like Palin, well, I hear the new Stephen King is pretty good.

What's unusual is that "Going Rogue" has ignited such a media firestorm. After all, politicians write books like this all the time. Nobody pays any attention. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Bill Frist, John Ashcroft, Mike Huckabee, Joe Biden, Henry Waxman -- and many, many more -- have all put pen to paper (often with help from collaborators) in order to record the authorized accounts of their political and personal lives. But they don't often go on "Oprah."

For the typical pol, a book serves as the news peg for a media tour. He gets to go on "The Daily Show," comment on public affairs and remind his constituents and campaign donors that his opinions matter. Then the book disappears. The pol returns to other business.

Palin is different. Her book has become the occasion to re-litigate the 2008 presidential campaign. All the raw cultural battles over abortion, feminism and populism that erupted when she strode into the limelight have sprung up again. All the stand-up comics who had a blast last year reducing this conservative reformer to a cartoon are ridiculing her once more.

The press and established powers in Washington consistently hold Palin to a higher standard. The AP assigned a team of 11 reporters to "fact-check" Palin's book. I don't remember Harry Reid's "The Good Fight" getting that treatment, but then, hardly anybody remembers "The Good Fight." Among the AP's discoveries was the fact that -- I am not making this up -- Palin is ambitious.

One critic described Palin as being "ungrateful" to the McCain campaign. Why? Because in her book Palin returns fire on the anonymous campaign strategists who called her a "diva" and "whackjob" to eager reporters. What was she supposed to do? Play the role of the orphan Oliver Twist and ask, "Please, sir, I want some more"?

Through no fault of her own, Sarah Palin has become a sort of political lens, refracting the different ways conservatives and liberals see the world. To her supporters, she is, as she puts it, a "common-sense conservative" who isn't afraid to make moral judgments. To her detractors, she's a moronic zealot who has no place in American public life. The two interpretations are concrete. "Going Rogue" won't do much to change any minds. But for what it reveals about our current political culture, Hans Robert Jauss would say it can't be beat.


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