07 December 2010

Initial Thoughts on "America By Heart"

I just finished America By Heart, Sarah Palin's second book. It follows the success of her previous Going Rogue, and differs enormously.

Going Rogue was a matter of vendetta. Palin was out to rewrite the record and defend herself, as well as justify her notion of self to the people. This is obvious right from the title; McCain's advisors had complained about Palin's tendency during the 2008 Presidential race to "go rogue" and ignore their advice and the campaign plan, coming out with an unplanned policy remark or arriving late to a meeting. Palin's appropriation of the phrase marked her tone: she was proudly anti-establishment, and if that establishment had listened to her "roguery" then she might be the Vice-President now.

That first book was reportedly ghostwritten by Lynn Vincent, and it showed. I expect that the usual method was taken: Palin dictated or jotted down notes and a rough outline, and Vincent turned those into a coherent narrative. It was an artificial construction, that seemed to bob along from talking point to talking point on a current of half-hearted spite. In reading it, it was hard not to see it as "Katie Couric is a jerk and Palin was very well-read... blah blah blah... I stood up to the Big Oil companies and got a pipeline built... blah blah blah... I opposed the bailouts... blah blah blah... Obama hates real Americans. There was very little real feeling evident in the book, which isn't surprising: it's hard to ghostwrite someone else's emotion. The narrative of her life smacked of a distant press release.

America By Heart is a very different book. To all appearances, it is mostly Palin's own work. I say "mostly" because it also includes an enormous amount of quotations. Large sections of speeches and books are included in every chapter, and there are frequent references to history and literature. Going Rogue took pains to list just how erudite Palin is, shoe-horning in supposedly casual references to thinkers like Aquinas. America By Heart, on the other hand, reads like the work of someone who has been doing a serious crash course in reading.

It seems pretty clear where Palin is getting her material. Advisors and prominent figures have probably been sending her recommendations for years now, helping her to brush up on her general knowledge of... well, everything. After the 2008 campaign humiliation, it was widely thought that Palin would do well to keep her head down and do her due diligence as governor while becoming acquainted with things like the Constitution and history. She may or may not be stupid, but she was definitely not very erudite in 2008, and it showed. And while Palin may have chosen to resign as governor and enter the media, she appears to have taken the criticism of her education to heart.

Unfortunately, this crash course is reflected in the quality of her thought. Repeatedly, she cites a great thinker or person while making a point, and then unwittingly undermines herself. For example, after criticizing Hollywood for refusing to make movies about people "working hard instead of dropping out," during a rhetorical attack on the movie American Beauty (in which the protagonist quits his job as part of a journey of self-discovery), Palin goes on to cite Bill Gates as an example of the hard-work ethic - and while Gates certainly worked hard, he's rather famous for dropping out of college to pursue his own dream. And of course need it even be said how ironic it is for Palin, who quit her job as Governor of Alaska when it got too hard, to be making this criticism?

The depth of thought in this book is frequently shallow in this way, and it's exacerbated by Palin's tendency to devolve into hackneyed red-meat-for-the-red-masses. Liberals don't want anyone to succeed; Reagan was a visionary who destroyed communism; etc. This is to be expected, though, and in truth it could be a lot worse.

Remember last year when Palin's prolific Facebook notes suddenly became tightly-written and snappily-researched, with the overall quality improved but a lot of the verve drained? There were a lot more footnotes and references, but also a lot fewer energetic and divisive "death panel" accusations. Reportedly, this was due to the arrival of advisor Rebecca Mansour, formerly of the blog Conservatives4Palin, who began to help administrate Palin's online presence.

Well, the transition between Going Rogue and America By Heart is of a similar order. Gone is the alternating snappishness and dullness, replaced by freshmen-level shallowness and careful referencing.

One definite improvement is that there are some moments of obvious and genuine feeling reflected. Palin's description of her special-needs toddler Trig's fascination with his right hand, and his use of it to help reassure himself in unfamiliar environments, has far more feeling than anything found in Going Rogue. Going Rogue often fell flat when trying to depict such scenes. One scene of supposed high emotion was at the opening of the book, set at an Alaskan state fair. It was the moment when McCain called Palin to ask her to run with him, and it should have been dramatic and numinous. Instead, it just seemed fake thanks to the sense of strained artificality.

Because someone was nice enough to get me America By Heart and I feel like they deserve their money's worth, I am going to unpack each chapter of this puddle of a book over the next few weeks. There's a whole lot of nonsense, just waiting to be displayed.

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