Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Sarah from Alaska", a book review

The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar

by Scott Conroy & Shushannah Walshe

published 2009 by Public Affairs Press,
ISBN 978-1-58648-788-1 (hardcover), 301 pages

I added this book to my reading list after hearing it described as a biography which was fact-based, and which was credited with seriously striving to be as unbiased as possible. Author Shushannah Walshe was a producer at Fox News from 2001 to 2008; author Scott Conroy worked for CBS News and as a producer. Both were embedded in the Vice Presidential Campaign of Sarah Palin as reporters.

I read this book in a very short period of time, so as to have my impressions from reading it fresh in my mind when I write this. The book appeared to me to be meticulously researched, with five pages of small print notes broken down by chapter, following the main body of the book. Those notes detail meticulously many of the 190 interviews for this book which they completed in research, in addition to their own shared observations from the campaign, and the additional several pages of acknowledgments. The authors point out that they give credit where they can, a few other sources did not wish to be identified in the book's pages. These sources encompass family and friends, political allies and foes - and some individuals who had been both at different points in time. One of the qualities in the writing of this book that most impressed me was the determined effort of the authors to avoid a celebrity hype piece, or a hatchet job, or sensationalism (pro or con).

My favorite quote, although long, insightfully sums up what was said by many of the people interviewed reads:

(quoting Republican State Legislator Ms. Lesil McGuire from Anchorage, who served prior to and during the Palin partial term as governor, pages 277-278)

"I am proud of her for entering the fray, for coming out and being strong with a full family and all of those obligations that she struggles with. And I am very proud of the person that she was when she entered the race. She was very real and plain spoken. But what I see as having happened now is that you had a really good person thrust way up ahead of where their experience level was. Maybe it would be like asking someone who had observed or read medical textbooks to go and perform a surgery. No matter how competent you are as a person and your character and what you stand for, it doesn't mean that you have the experience necessary to govern. People take that for granted. I think they think that when they are voting for someone, it's a personality contest. Well, if I like them, if they are attractive to me, if they seem like a good person, maybe I want them to be my neighbor, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are qualified to govern. And it may mean they are qualified to govern later on in their life, not at that particular point. So she got ahead of her experience. Because of that, in my opinion, her self-confidence deteriorated. She stopped having one-on-one meetings, because, frankly, the conversations would get into details that she wasn't able to answer. That then begets a whole other series of problems. People feel like you are not respecting them because you are not meeting with them. You are evasive; you are aloof. You're not doing it necessarily because you're mean, because you are rejecting the public; it's because you're maybe out of your league and then now you compound this with this national exposure, and she never got an opportunity to define to the world who she was prior to that."

I have been skeptical of the allegations made in the recent gossipy book "Game Change", which included the idea that Sarah Palin was so poorly educated on such a wide range of topics that she did not know why there was a North and South Korea, and that she had to be educated on the fundamentals of the history of WWI and WWII. In the section of "Sarah from Alaska"dealing with the preparation for the Vice Presidential Debate, the participants involved in prepping Palin assert that Palin had very much that kind of ignorance. They describe foot tall piles upon piles of flash cards intended to try to cram as one would for an exam to bring her up to speed. Palin appears to be not only appallingly ignorant, and unqualified to serve in a major political office, she shows no indication of attempting to remediate her deficiencies, or to even acknowledge that she has such deficiencies. Palin has, correctly, been compared unfavorably to the widely viewed as unqualified Vice President, Dan Quayle.

On page 38, Palin's own father is credited with explaining Sarah Palin's leaving the University of Hawaii at Hilo, in a comment that is in some ways descriptive of Palin (and her friends) subsequently leaving the office of Governor after the Vice Presidential campaign "It just wasn't what they expected," he says. "They were a minority type thing and it wasn't glamorous, so she came home." A similar lack of glamour is given as one of the causes, but by no means the only cause, for Palin leaving office without serving out her full term. It also reflects a very parochial, narrow comfort zone for Palin prior to being thrust upon the national stage.

I won't try to summarize the entire contents of this book. It covers Palin's entry into state level politics, it addresses many of her relationships, both family and friends, and political colleagues and adversaries. "Sarah from Alaska" provides an excellent look behind the scenes of the 2008 McCain / Palin Presidential and Vice Presidential campaigns, and follows her up until shortly after her resignation as Governor of Alaska after the campaign was over.

I was impressed with the effort by these two journalists to be as objective and fact-based for their statements as is humanly, reasonably possible. I was impressed at the level of collaboration as authors, especially given the rivalry of their employers. For those who have a continuing interest in Palin, whether as a supporter or a detractor (or the few who remain neutral), I would encourage adding this book to your reading list. It is a significant source for anyone trying to form a well-grounded opinion of Palin in anticipation of the 2012 electoral race.

I would particularly appreciate comments from any other readers of this book for their reactions to the content.


  1. I commend you on a well written article, My Dear Lady. However, alas, given the constrictions on my time, I won't be able to read the book soon. Thank you for an excellent review.

  2. Assuming the evaluation of various friends and associates is fair (it obviously is factually reported) - this book paints an image which is troubling on two levels.

    First, while Sarah Palin may well be a kind and decent person on a one-on-one basis, it seems as if she suffers from an inability to balance her ambitions against what should have been glaringly obvious to her, namely, that she wasn't ready or qualified to hold the office which would put her one 72 year old man's heart beat from the Presidency. The Presidency (like many many other positions of governance) is NOT an office which the nice but inexperienced are ready to hold - nor is any governorship - as I'm sure Ms. Palin found out. It is something where a deep understanding of how good policy is done, and most importanly, why, including good foundational understandings of civics and ethics - are things, skills, knowledge which should ALWAYS be one of the hallmarks of candidates from BOTH parties. Failing to acknowledge those critical shortcomings about yourself, continuing to seek further steps/positions up that ladder of power when you know you "don't know" many key facets, is simply the mark of avarisciousness outweighing sense. In short, it's greed, in this case for power, and it is self-delusion, massive self-delusion about your own ability to do things even when you have no experience. It is what put George Bush in the Presidency - he felt he didn't need to know the details, didn't need to worry about the 'small stuff' and we invaded the wrong country due to his ignorance and ambition as a result.

    The second problem, and to me more important and compelling, is that her followers and fans HAD to see she wasn't ready - certainly her handlers did, yet they supported her. They feel and felt similarly to Palin, that facts, reality, good policy, none of it matters - it's all about victory. If you put an unqualified hack (like VP Qyale) in office, so long as they pursue your agenda - even if your agenda lacks depth, or the ability to deal with a complex problem (like, say George Bush's handling of Iraq for 5 years), that's not an issue. If your unqualified candidate helps craft idiotic policy (like Sarsbannes-Oxley), because they don't understand how to craft good policy, if they spend 90% of their time on vacation while the state suffers (as Jesse Ventura did) - that's A-OK, after all, you're getting your single issue item (or scant few) items handled how you want them to, is paramount. What's even more important, is you get someone who apparently THINKS like you do, handles issues on a superficial level like you do - and it's extraordinarily wrong and bad for the country.

    If the candidate is so self-deluded and egotistical that they don't recuse themself, then their party members should, and Palin's supporters not only can't be honest about her shortcomings, they have pushed her even further forward, and far ahead of her ability to handle the pressure.

  3. When asked by the higher ranking staff of the McCain Palin ticket why she was qualified to be Vice President, a heart beat away from the office of President, Palin's answer was that it was because God put her there, it was where God wanted her to be.

    She sincerely believes that her belief in God is sufficient for her to do the job, without additional skills.

    In one of the early chapters of the book, describing the campaigns for Governor of Alaska, one of her oponents criticized her lack of knowledge, and made the observation that her campaign statements 'didn't mature' over time. She couldn't answer questions involving depth and detail even then.

    What put Palin in the office of Governor was not executive ability - her exectuive abilities and experience are greatly exaggerated by her supporters. It was having the right slogans and being in the right place at the right time. Not qualifications. It explains her resignation after the VP campaign. Her initial popularity and success relates directly to the depth of policy and competency of several subordinates. Subordinates she subsequently fired for trivial personal reasons unrelated to their job performance.

    Without them, she was toast. Palin is relying on charisma and a 'personality cult' following for her future success. I hope it is not enough, because it takes more than that to govern - at any level.

    Current polls show overwhelmingly that Palin is not viewed favorably to run for election to the Presidency in 2012. I doubt she can persuade them otherwise.

    Palin is severely criticized in the book for outright lying, when confronted with inconvenient or unpleasant facts about her conduct and her positions. Every time she blythely presents an account of what she whished had happened, instead of facing facts, regardless of how clearly the facts contradict her. She then proceeds to ignore the issue after she presents her fantasy version.

    This was a huge headache for the McCain campaign, and was a huge headache for Palin when she returned to Alaska afterwards. Instead of facing the problems head on, Palin has retrenched in an increasingly further right wing fundamental zone, weakening - sometimes entirely abandoning - the strengths she had demonstrated early on.

    This woman is shallow, vain, self-serving, ambitious to a fault. Ideology will not make her a legitimate, serious candidate and negate those faults. She is a teleginic and charismatic individual to her fans. Some believe that will win her the primary, but it cannot and should not win her any general election.

  4. I guess I'll take the devil's advocate, since my father-in-law likes her so much.

    I take issue with the accusations of her being shallow and vain. Labeling people, while sometimes necessary, is always dangerous. Politics always requires someone to put an image forward that never accurately reflects their personality.

    Palin and I have quite a bit in common. We both stand strongly for what we believe in, we make no bones about our positions, and we are both arrogant and self-serving.

    We have similar levels of education. We're both adored by millions (her in reality, me in my head). We're both experts in philosophy and logic (me in reality, her in her head).

    The opinions themselves differ, but I can't really fault her style without faulting my own.

    And I think her current role was due. The TEA Partiers don't want a suit, they want someone like them. Someone who never went to Harvard, someone who never studied law, someone who hunts and takes her kids to hockey. Someone who shoots their mouth off without getting all the facts first, like them.

    Of course, as soon as she was named VP candidate, she ran out and and bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of suits. But hey, I guess politics are still politics.

    Or as Mitch always says, "it is what it is."

  5. AB wrote

    "I take issue with the accusations of her being shallow and vain. Labeling people, while sometimes necessary, is always dangerous. Politics always requires someone to put an image forward that never accurately reflects their personality."

    You make an interesting point AB; I describe Palin (which is how I view the words shallow and vain in my usage)in words which sum up certain patterns of conduct. She increasingly in the book failed to correctly prioritize competing demands / needs / interests for using her time and energy. She would expend effort and unreasonable amounts of time on petty and trivial things, especially on trying to exact 'payback' or revenge, lashing out at people for real or imaginary slights to an unreasonable and ultimately self-destructive degree. She did not indicate any intellectual curiosity - quite the opposite.

    As to being vain, I would not so much fault the big expenditures on clothing during the campaign, so much as looking at the style she has adopted post-campaign. Look at the book tour, flying from location to location at $4,000 an hour AND the special tour bus? Her interactions with stylists at the hotels she has stayed at when traveling, her current far more lavish life style (including clothing apparently).

    In the book, Palin on multiple occasions figured she'd just 'bs' her way through difficult interviews, that she didn't have to prepare, that she didn't NEED to have depth in subjects because she had charisma. I think that is a fair pattern of behavior for the word 'vain'.

    But heck, if you see similarities between you and Palin, you might want to get a copy of the book, read it to see for sure, and then present it to your father in law afterwards - a 'two-fer'!