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Book Review

Palin, in the worst possible light

McGinniss’s biography suffers from a lack of objectivity

(Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)
By Chuck Leddy
September 23, 2011

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In his controversial new biography, Joe McGinniss shows us two faces of the divisive Sarah Palin: one the hyper-patriotic, chirpily upbeat “hockey mom’’ crusading against the evils of Big Government, and the other an insecure, intellectually challenged, and highly vindictive Machiavelli in Manolo Blahniks.

The tale we get is not pretty, but then again the teller seems less than unbiased. McGinniss, a respected journalist best known for his “The Selling of the President’’ and “Fatal Vision’’ (which spawned a public brawl with New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm who accused him of various journalistic ethical gaffes), presumably knows he should be objective about his subject, but he often loses his balance, referring to her at points as “a tenth-grade Mean Girl’’ and “a clown in high heels.’’

McGinniss, a Massachusetts native who currently lives outside Amherst, began reporting his story during the 2008 election and made news when he moved to Alaska in 2010 and became one of Palin’s Wasilla neighbors in order to burrow in. After detailing his decision to get closer to his subject (indeed he is not a narrator who resides in the background), McGinniss begins retracing Palin’s life from childhood to her youth at Wasilla High School to her tenure as hometown mayor and later governor and finally into the present, all the while serving up juicy hearsay about Palin’s personal life (cocaine use, extramarital affairs, screaming matches with husband Todd, neglectful parenting, and more).

As McGinniss dishes the dirt he’s vacuumed from numerous anonymous sources, the book begins to feel like a catalog of rumor, innuendo, and unsubstantiated assertion. The focus blurs as we wallow in a sometimes annoying chorus of gossip rather than an ordered examination of substantiated reporting that might better illuminate Palin’s character. Do we really need to know, for example, that Palin hates housework or prefers chocolate to vegetables, or that she’d rather read People magazine than some wonkish report on taxation? This pretty much makes her like the rest of us, one of the primary (if embarrassing) reasons for her popularity.

It seems apparent that a major reason for his use of so many anonymous sources involves the lack of willingness of many around Palin to speak on the record. Fair enough. But typically journalists grant anonymity to knowledgeable, credible sources only when access to vital information would be otherwise impossible - and even then they attempt to verify what can be verified. But there really isn’t much new here. McGinniss confirms that Palin can be vindictive toward anyone who questions her beliefs or mounts a challenge. He talks to countless people who’ve known Palin from way back. To say that the knives come out would be woefully understating it, and McGinniss allows most of Palin’s detractors to do their dirty work in the dark.

McGinniss is probably at his best when sifting through the details of the so-called Troopergate scandal in which Palin was accused of launching an administrative vendetta against her sister’s former husband, Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten. After the marriage collapsed into divorce and a heated custody battle, Palin, who was then governor, and her family “filed twenty-five complaints against [Trooper] Wooten,’’ alleging misconduct in an attempt to get him fired. All were found without merit, except one. An off-duty Wooten shot a moose without a permit and shared the meat with others, including Palin.

When Alaska’s Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan, who was Wooten’s boss, steadfastly refused to cave into Palin’s demands to get rid of Wooten, she fired him. An ensuing investigation ordered by the Alaska Legislature found, McGinniss summarizes, that Palin had “abused the power of her office’’ by pursuing a personal agenda against Trooper Wooten, terminating Monegan in the process. A subsequent inquiry by Alaska’s State Personnel Board found that Palin did not violate ethics rules.

At book’s end McGinniss notes that Palin has become a national political force and one that likely will help shape next year’s election, decrying the “co-dependent’’ mainstream media’s lack of clear-eyed coverage “for fear it might discover something it can’t ignore.’’ Many would agree. Which makes it a shame this isn’t a better book.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

THE ROGUE:

Searching for the Real Sarah Palin

By Joe McGinniss

Crown, 336 pp., $25