Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A woman of substance and virtue
A review of Going Rogue, by Sarah Palin

Going Rogue is the memoir of a politician concerned to settle scores and set the record straight. It is not a substantive work of policy, rather it takes the opportunity to speak at length directly to her constituency, without the distorting and malicious prism of the mainstream media, about her background and beliefs. Palin is manifestly a gifted politician but much more importantly she is a good politician, a woman of substance and virtue.

Although Palin was born outside of Alaska, she moved there while still an infant, and this Alaskan context dominates her understanding of the world. She writes movingly of the influence that her father had upon her upbringing, most especially the way in which she imbibed the virtues of hard work and determination. I was particularly impressed by the story she tells of a Basketball final in which she played through despite having a broken ankle, an ankle that still troubles her today. Todd Palin also comes across well – which isn't a surprise – but what is a surprise is the way in which Palin tells a story against herself (concerning Faye Palin, her step-mother-in-law) in order to bring out her husband's integrity. Indeed, the moral failure exposed in this anecdote is significantly worse than most of the criticisms thrown at Palin during the 08 campaign and the lesson she learned then has held her in very good stead ever since.

Palin says much about that campaign, not least her interview with Couric. This caused a great deal of pain and she spends quite a bit of time giving her perspective. Palin is intelligent and well read, but she is not an intellectual, and a format geared around stroking the egoes of the latter was never going to show her at her best. Yes she was stitched up, and it was an unfair presentation, but if you throw someone in the deep end it isn't a surprise if they swallow some water, so I don't think it can all be blamed on CBS. In contrast to Couric Palin is quite gracious about Tina Fay, and her sense of humour and innate humility are healthily shown by her appearance on SNL, and, indeed, her recent speech to the Gridiron club. What is most striking in her account of the campaign, however, is how far she was shackled by her “managers”, who seem to have been barely competent. The bias shown by the mainstream media during that campaign, and the vilification, misogyny and obstructionism thrown at Palin ever since, would have caused many people to have buckled completely. I found Palin convincing in her discussion of her resignation as Governor, which was, as her father put it, 'not retreating but reloading'.

Some particular things that I like about Palin:
  • fiscal conservatism, which is pursued on a pragmatic basis. This is seen in her tenure as Governor, but can also, I would argue, be seen from her time as Mayor of Wasilla (a good discussion here). Palin is not an ideologue, she is a pragmatist, and is happy to use government for those things which government can do best, eg infrastructure. What impresses me is the way in which the costs of these measures was budgeted for, and the tax increases agreed with the voters, before anything happened. This seems like excellent governance to me;
  • public service: Palin believes in public service in a way that is remarkably refreshing. It has led to her taking some significant knocks along the way, but they only seem to have strengthened her determination;
  • this has depended on her personal courage and integrity, seen in all sorts of different ways. Taking on the CBC, resigning from the Oil and Gas commission and then the governorship, most of all in the decision, movingly discussed in the book, to keep Trig – Palin is manifestly someone who has been tried and tested and has proven her integrity to a degree significantly ahead of most politicians (which is surely a large part of her appeal);
  • social capital: Palin is a product of the proverbial small town. That has both bad and good sides. The bad side has already been mocked mercilessly – insularity, chauvinism, possible boorishness (eg her remarks about vegetarians in the book). Yet the good side has not been as widely recognised by the media. Small towns are schools of virtue and good judgement – Victor Hanson is good on this – and I wrote more about this aspect here: Alaskan values and the character of leadership. There is a contest here between the cynicism of 'inside the Beltway' (or the Westminster village) and the sincerity of a normal person;
  • her faith, which seems normal and real to me (obviously, to the secular elite, that just means I'm a fundamentalist too). I wouldn't agree with how she describes the evolution/creation debate, but Palin's faith seems genuine, personal and recognisable, and something on which she leans regularly.

The most significant area where I disagree with Palin relates to energy, where she seems to have a distorted sense of what is possible over the next ten to fifteen years (distorted, but doubtless very much the US mainstream). I think she is wise to pursue an 'all of the above' strategy on energy, the problem is that I have little hope that the status quo can be preserved, and she gives no evidence of realising the tough choices that will have to be faced. However, I have no doubt that her pragmatism and basic good sense will allow her to make good decisions when she is actually put on the spot. Her record has earned her the benefit of the doubt on that, at least for now.

In many ways Palin is the antithesis of Obama. Where she is unambiguously a product of the US mainstream, saturated in patriotic, even chauvinist values, Obama is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic man who seems to have little visceral attachment to the US at all. Where Palin is someone who has risen on the basis of her own drive and abilities, often at odds with party establishments, Obama is a creature of the political machine. Where Palin was hugely influenced by her father, Obama's life has been marked by a search for a father figure. Where Palin is an outsider and reformer, Obama is an insider and elitist. If Palin succeeds in parlaying her current influence into electoral success for the Republicans in 2010 then I shall look forward to her taking on and then beating Obama for the presidency in 2012. She is not a person who will solve all the problems that the West faces – who could? - but I do believe that she would make an extremely able and effective President of the United States.

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