By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 9:21 PM
AMERICA BY HEART
Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag
OF THEE I SING
A Letter to My Daughters
We're a nation of shared hopes and shared heroes, so it's no surprise that President Obama and Sarah Palin trot out the same American demigods in new books aimed at scoring points for patriotism.
President Obama's "Of Thee I Sing" is an illustrated work for children that the dad in chief wrote as a letter to his daughters. The book, released last week, offers brief flag-waving portraits of memorable Americans throughout history. Palin's "America by Heart," due out this week, is a fast-reading reiteration of the former Alaska governor's folksy values, centered around God, gunpowder and family.
With the 2012 presidential race already stirring some buzz - notably, Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she could defeat Obama - the two books risk being perceived (and dismissed) as efforts to burnish the authors' campaign images. But they're revealing nonetheless, showing how two of the most powerful and polarizing figures in U.S. politics today interpret the nation's etched-in-stone icons quite differently. Their contrasting views of our cherished symbols underscore the political battle to define and appropriate the American story.
Understandably, Obama may not get much of a political lift from a book for readers ages 4 to 8, but most book-loving kids come with a voting parent or two who will likely dip into the uplifting biographies of activist Jane Addams, labor leader Cesar Chavez and Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin. With her book, which is aimed at adults, Palin enriches her appeal to her constituency of Bible-loving, soldier-rearing "mama grizzlies."
Palin flashes her trademark, common-sense sass when discussing, say, the virtues of hard work, as revealed on "American Idol." "[Simon] Cowell can be a little harsh at times," she writes, "but he upholds the highest standards, and something in us recognizes and responds to that." And she delivers the tried-and-true anti-Obama rants: "Our current leaders like to focus on America's faults and apologize for her shortcomings - both real and perceived - to dictators and would-be dictators abroad."
The books' overlapping A-list of American legends includes inevitable picks such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King; both also feature, in a striking moment of commonality, Helen Keller, whom the authors single out for pointing the way through adversity.
So, should we consider it an American strength or a catastrophe that the differing appreciation of the same great lives divides the body politic? Can a hero embody absolute truth when seen through different lenses?
Palin makes room in her book for lesser luminaries of more recent vintage, such as her former running mate, Sen. John McCain, whom she praises for his grit as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and former House speaker (and possible Palin rival for the GOP presidential nomination) Newt Gingrich, whose bashing of the "media-academic-legal elite" pleases her.
In "Of Thee I Sing," Obama offers an intellectual portrayal of George Washington as a leader who "believed in liberty and justice for all" and "helped make an idea into a new country." For Palin, however, Washington has another resonance: He is one of her pillars for arguing that religion should be centerstage in American civil society. The founding fathers, she writes, "created a country that, in George Washington's words, relies on faith as an 'indispensable support.' . . . And this, I firmly believe, is one of the things that has always made us an exceptional nation."
While Obama, the first black president, depicts Lincoln as a man who "promised freedom to enslaved sisters and brothers," Palin stresses how Lincoln's second inaugural address "is just 703 words long, yet it mentions God 14 times and quotes the Bible twice."
Obama suggests to his daughters that they are the legacy of King, a man of "unyielding compassion" who "opened hearts and saw the birth of his dream in us." For Palin, who pounds away at the dictates of faith, King was a "man of God" who opposed his jailing in Birmingham in "a refudiation, if you will - cast in explicitly religious terms."
Even the moon landing - evoked in both books but with starkly different intent - becomes a point of contention. Searching for the roots of his and his daughters' advance in American society, Obama hails courageous astronaut Neil Armstrong, who "made us brave enough to take our own big, bold strides." Palin recalls President John F. Kennedy's "confidence and brio" in launching the race to the moon, then chides Obama for wimping out on the space program.
It's even worse than that, she warns, quoting the head of NASA as saying that his agency's top goal was to reach out to Muslim nations "to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and math and engineering." Palin is aghast: "What? Holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya' with Muslim countries? What does that have to do with our once proud and pioneering space program?"
Palin's prose is fluid, quite unlike the fractured syntax common at her unscripted public appearances, a total reboot that suggests an excellent ghostwriter. In her acknowledgments, Palin offers "special thanks" to Jessica Gavora, an Alaskan who served as chief speechwriter for former attorney general John Ashcroft and who is the wife of conservative writer Jonah Goldberg.
Obama, by contrast, appears to have turned away all help with the writing of his children's story: The book reads like it really is a letter from a very busy dad-president - no rhythm, no rhyme, no rat-a-tat-tat. What's a children's tale without a fancy step or two? "Of Thee I Sing" sadly has no melody.
Of course, the bar for White House children's books has never been very high. First lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna Bush Hager's "Read All About It!" told the forgettable tale of Tyrone Brown, class clown, who learns to love reading. And there was Jimmy Carter's friendly - and treacly - sea monster in "The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer," illustrated by then-art student Amy Carter.
Who knows? One day, perhaps, President Palin can make her children's book debut with "Little Bristol's Magic Dancing Shoes."
Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post.