How Palin Haters Help Palin

Joe McGinniss’s new book is a masterpiece of meanness. Matt Latimer on how the author is only helping keep the former Alaska governor relevant—and rich.

09.19.11 5:00 AM ET

I was in the middle of the controversial new book about everyone’s favorite Alaskan—The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palinwhen I began to fret that I’d accidentally fallen into a DeLorean and time-traveled back to 2008. Does our world really need yet another person to tell us that the former Alaska governor is a vicious, savage, vindictive, paranoid, lying, hypocritical Jesus freak? If that’s your thing, by all means run to your local bookstore before Matt Damon buys up all the copies. 

But perhaps you might take a moment for what Sarah Palin’s onetime running mate famously called a “little straight talk.” Beating up Palin might have been fun for you for a while, but I gotta tell you. It’s starting to get a little ugly.

Even the Republicans have figured out when they’ve had enough of a good thing. Oh, sure, many of them still like Palin and believe she has a role to play in their party. They feel protective of her when she comes under attack. But there’s hardly a soul in Washington who believes she will be the next president of the United States. She doesn’t lead a single national poll of candidates. Even Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham have had their fill of The Many Perils of Sarah P.

There is a harsh reality to face. The only people who are really keeping Palin relevant—and rich—are those who most despise her, along with their friends in the media. Well, the former governor surely has enough money now, and you’ve had enough fun. Palin haters, it’s finally time for some tough love. You need to stop encouraging this. It’s really time to move on. If The Rogue proves anything, it is that this advice is sadly overdue.

A word about the author of this masterpiece of meanness, Joe McGinniss. This is not some low-rent gossip columnist or celebrity stalker. He is a veteran journalist and critically acclaimed author whose various writings have appeared in practically every highbrow magazine there is. Clearly a man who values his reputation and follows his every mention in the media, he has many friends within the Boston–New York literary establishment. That only makes his latest enterprise that much more depressing. This is the kind of book McGinniss thinks his tony Manhattan audience wants to read. Even more alarming, perhaps it is.

What more really needs to be said about a screed so lazily sourced and innuendo-filled that even The New York Times felt the need to step away from it? A book whose author made the creepy and in retrospect, incredibly foolish, decision to move into the house right next door to the Palins and then had the nerve to feign surprise when the Palins were more than a little teed off. (If you think the Palins were rough on you, Mr. McGinniss, then I suggest you try pulling that move on Tom Cruise some time. By the time his lawyers are through with you, your great-great-grandchildren will owe him damages.)

I found myself engrossed in the book not for its meritorious revelations but its litany of revulsions—a 318-page car crash that left me gaping at the rubble. Even now that I’ve finished it, I want to pick it up again just for more lessons on how a literary endeavor can go so terribly wrong. Or maybe this book is just the end result of a zany experiment: What would happen if you did the exact opposite of everything David McCullough would do?

If Palin were a man, we likely wouldn’t have to endure anonymously sourced gossip about her looks, her weight, her sex life, her (apparently shameful) distaste for “domestic chores,” that she once walked around naked in all-girls dorm, that she at one point was sexually a “cold fish” while later on she had a “fetish for black guys.” (Sex is such a recurring theme in this book that one wonders whether it has been ghostwritten by Larry Flynt.) The word “bitch” inevitably wades onto the pages—one wonders if that was the original title. Her religion too—indeed religion in general—is in for a lampooning. You know how all these Alaskans are—clinging to their guns and religion and so forth. She is of course a total dummy who somehow became the most popular governor in the state’s history and for while had a serious shot at the vice presidency. No matter. We are to hate Palin because she is a frivolous, stupid manipulator who has no business opining on national issues. Unlike almost every other politician in Washington or, say, the entire cast of Ocean’s Eleven.

Much ado is made of the fact that our Sarah had sex with a black guy (!) and then allegedly “freaked out” afterward. This is meant to be one of the few big “revelations” in the book, especially since we are told repeatedly—by anonymous “friends” of course—that Palin is a terrible racist. Odd then that the black man in question, the former University of Michigan basketball star Glen Rice, is actually quoted as saying that Palin was “super nice” to him and “a sweetheart” with whom he carried on a happy friendship for many years.  Perhaps Rice never noticed the Klan hood that apparently hung in Palin’s dorm-room closet.

As for her husband and the Palin children, they are fair game as well. Todd Palin has never held any public office, or as far as I know aspired to one, but McGinniss has no qualms drudging up any rumor he’s ever heard about him. So we are duly informed that Todd and his crew are loathsome, coke-using, racist bullies. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a line from The Empire Strikes Back: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Well, except for Wasilla, Alaska. By the time I made it to page 40, I wondered when our shocked, prudish author was going to collapse to his fainting couch with a case of the vapors.

Have we really come to a point in politics where a person is so reviled that even the feelings of her kids don’t matter? On the odd chance that it matters, The Rogue doesn’t give a hoot about the Palin children, happily reporting as “fact” that Sarah is a terrible mother who seems to loathe them and that a “friend of Todd’s” “confirms” that the Palins' first-born child was conceived out of wedlock. (How this was “confirmed” we are left to wonder.)  What a nice treat for 9-year-old Piper to come across such lines about her mother as, “She hauled his ass down” or “Neither did Sarah find nourishment in the joy of sexual intimacy with her husband.” Or to suffer a rehash of a story in the National Enquirer claiming their mother had had an affair—yes, the National Enquirer is one of the book’s few actual sources. Or to hear yet again the wacko conspiracy theory that Palin’s youngest child may not really be hers. Or to encounter a quote from some random—and gutless person—who allegedly whispered to McGinniss that years ago he or she heard Palin possibly say before some meeting, “I’ve got on my biggest push-up bra. I’m going to get what I want tonight.” Palin haters, aren’t you better than this? Are you really on the same level as the 9/11 birthers?

Is anything in this book true? Who knows? And in this book’s view, who cares? It is so lazy that it doesn’t even bother with an index. But it will fit well on the bookshelves of those unthinking idiots who buy tomes saying that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim who invites terrorist attacks or that Dick Cheney is the root of all evil in the modern world.

I’m sure this book will be fodder for late-night comedians and anti-Palin pundits on MSNBC, but I hope maybe a few of them might for a moment stop and wonder if even someone as horrible as Palin might deserve a little bit of temperance and discretion. That maybe when we talk about changing the tone of our politics, we could start by changing the way we talk about our opponents.  And even if you don’t buy that, you might at least consider that you are only making your enemy even stronger and richer.

If this book becomes a bestseller, I won’t for a moment be surprised.  But I will be a little bit disappointed.