November 27, 2009
The Competing Narratives of Barry and SarahBy Jack Cashill
In the spring of 1964, Sarah Heath, then just three months old, flew into backwater Skagway, Alaska (population 650) aboard a 1930s-era Grumman Goose to start a new life with her parents, brother, and sister.
At that same time, in America's other new outlier state, Hawaii, two-year-old Barry Obama was just getting used to a fatherless existence in the otherwise-comfortable world his white grandparents and occasionally his mother would make for him.
At the time, not even Nostradamus could have foretold that the paths of Barry and Sarah would intersect in the "historic" 2008 election, Barry as the first major party presidential nominee of African descent and Sarah as the first woman with a real shot at the vice-presidency.
Each would change names before reaching the national stage. Barry Obama would become Barry Soetero, and then Barack Obama. Sarah Heath would become Sarah Palin after eloping with the formidable Todd Palin. Obama would chronicle his journey in the 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father and the 2006 sequel, The Audacity of Hope. Palin would chronicle hers in the 2009 memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life.
How the literary/media establishment would respond to the respective memoirs of these two political figures would reveal far less about the authenticity, honesty, and literary quality of the tales the authors told than it would about the collective mindset of that establishment.
From a classical perspective, Palin's is the more compelling narrative. The obstacles that she must overcome to fulfill her destiny are many, varied, and real. Raised in the frozen outback by a schoolteacher father and a school secretary mom, Palin accomplishes nothing without a good deal of work, often under difficult physical circumstances.
Palin takes a semester or two off to pay for college. She works at a diner over the summer. She enters the Miss Alaska contest to help pay tuition and is awarded second runner-up and "Miss Congeniality." She interns during other summers to become a sports reporter.
After college, Palin joins fiancé Todd on his Bristol Bay salmon boat. During slow salmon runs, she works "messy, obscure seafood jobs" until she can find a job as sports reporter, and even then she keeps returning to Bristol Bay when the salmon are in season.
Throughout this period, despite the hard work and harsh environment, Palin never loses her sense of wonder about the spectacular natural theater in which she is so very much at home. When asked about the state's best attributes during a Miss Alaska pageant, Palin responds, "its beauty and everything that the great Alaska outdoors has to offer." Prophetically, she also plugs the state's "potential in drilling for oil," which, even then, "Outsiders don't understand."
Back in Hawaii, either through his grandparents' connections or by dint of affirmative action, Obama spends grades five through twelve at Hawaii's poshest prep school. Like Palin, he plays basketball, but while she is leading her school to the state championship, he is a second stringer on a team whose wins and losses go unremarked. The only scores Obama shares are the imagined racial ones that need to be settled, a working out of his "pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against [his] mother's race."
In his recent book Barack and Michelle, Christopher Andersen quotes a black friend who rejected Obama's claimed reason for being benched in a particular game.
Obama admits to "marginal report cards" in prep school, but his underperformance does not diminish his dreams. He hits the mainland in the late 1970s with the "diversity" movement in full flower. Diversity's rationale is that people of varied cultures enrich the educational experience. Obama's upbringing, however, has been thoroughly white and elitist. The diversity bean-counters couldn't care less. His skin color improves their "metrics." Obama will ride this pony far.
After two druggy, uninspired years at Occidental College, Obama transfers to the Ivy League -- Columbia, to be precise. In Dreams, Obama dedicates one half of a sentence to a summer job on a construction site. Otherwise, he is silent on how his tuition might have been paid for. As to his grades and SAT scores, it would be easier to pry North Korea's nuclear secrets out of Kim Jong-Il.
After several years as a low-paid community organizer in Chicago, Obama decides to return to law school. Despite a lack of resources and a mediocre performance at Columbia -- he does not graduate with honors -- Obama limits his choices to "Harvard, Yale, Stanford." He had absorbed the diversity zeitgeist deeply enough to see success as an entitlement.
In the spring of 1989, during Obama's first year at Harvard Law, Palin's "life truly began" with the birth of her oldest son, Track. That summer, with Todd working a blue-collar job on the North Slope oil fields, Palin, her father, and their Eskimo partner work Todd's commercial fishing boat in Bristol Bay. Palin's mother, meanwhile, baby-sits the ten-week-old Track.
In 1992, while an anxious Obama dithers in an office that the University of Chicago has given him to write Dreams, half of his $150,000 advance already cashed, Palin is pulling her babies, Track and Bristol, along on a sled as she goes door-to-door seeking votes in her run for Wasilla city council.
Not yet thirty, Palin settles upon the philosophy that will guide her political career: reducing taxes "and redefining government's proper role." Like few Republicans this side of Ronald Reagan, Palin will adhere to these principles throughout her political ascent.
Not surprisingly, Palin's tenacity makes enemies among those who have cashed in their Republican heritage for the perks and power of office. Palin's perseverance in the face of this resistance makes for compelling political drama. That she is a woman challenging the good old boys of backroom Alaska heightens that drama.
Yet despite pushing the boundaries of female accomplishment throughout her career -- as sports reporter, as commercial fisherman, as councilwoman, as mayor, as oil and gas commissioner, as governor, as vice-presidential candidate -- Palin never loses her sense of the feminine. Having five children surely helps. So does living in an environment where manly virtues still matter.
An exchange with the larger-than-life Todd helps clarify Alaskan reality. Todd is a four-time winner of the Iron Dog competition, a 2,200 mile snowmobiling marathon. One night, Sarah expresses interest in competing. Says Todd:
When Sarah answers "Nope," Todd replies, "Then go back to sleep, Sarah." Todd lives his Eskimo heritage. He does not just dream about it, let alone exploit it.
While Palin is slugging through Alaska's political morass like a determined Iditarod musher, Obama is cruising through Illinois politics on skids greased by his Chicago cronies. In his 2004 run for U.S. Senate, both his chief primary opponent and his expected general election opponent are undone by damaging personal information leaked to the media. Obama wins both elections easily.
The combination of his black genes and white upbringing makes the famously "articulate and bright and clean" Obama an irresistible choice to keynote the race-conscious 2004 Democratic convention. "I mean, that's a storybook, man," alleges the inimitable Joe Biden.
The story told in Dreams will become a huge bestseller in the wake of the 2004 convention. The lofty, lyrical style of the book will seal the Ivy-educated Obama's reputation as a genius, and its much-celebrated narrative would serve as a foundational myth for Obama's ascent to the White House.
Said NEA chairman Rocco Landesman just last month, reiterating the accepted wisdom of the chattering classes, "This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln."
The establishment will not be so kind to Palin. In the week of Going Rogue's release, the New York Times house conservative David Brooks will call her "a joke." Dick Cavett, the Norma Desmond of TV talk, will dismiss her as a "know-nothing." Ex-con Dem fundraiser Martha Stewart will brand Palin "a dangerous person." And literally thousands of lesser liberal lights will deride her as "stupid," an "idiot," or a "moron" (8.5 million Google hits and counting for "Palin" "moron").
In that same week, Chris Matthews was worrying out loud that Obama was "too darned intellectual," and author Michael Eric Dyson was celebrating Obama's "sexy brilliance." But while the Associated Press was sending a platoon of reporters to fact-check Palin's book, neither the AP nor any other media outlet dared check either Dreams or Audacity of Hope.
They likely feared what they would find -- namely that Obama's genius depends solely on his willingness to lie about it. "I've written two books," Obama told a crowd of teachers in Virginia last year. "I actually wrote them myself." He did no such thing. He had massive help with both books.
Although the prose of Dreams is often lyrical, it is not Obama's. As I have argued in these pages, and as Christopher Andersen has confirmed, Obama's gifted friend Bill Ayers gussied up the rough outlines of Obama's life and imposed upon them the mythic dimensions of Homer's Odyssey. To accomplish this, the authors invented any number of incidents, many of which are easily disproved. For a serious seeker of facts, Dreams is Sutter Creek in 1848.
In Going Rogue, by contrast, Palin does not shy from crediting Lynn Vincent for "her indispensable help in getting the words on paper." And yet the story is told honestly and sincerely in Palin's voice. There is no artifice, no postmodern mumbo-jumbo, and not a sentence in the book that Palin could not have written herself. My personal favorite, "I love meat." I suspect that, unaided, journalism major and former reporter Palin is a better writer than Obama.
Left to their own devices, Palin is clearly the better speaker. In Going Rogue's climactic moment, the unknown Palin serves up the most dazzling convention speech in modern political history, and she does so in spite of a malfunctioning teleprompter. "I knew the speech well enough that I didn't need it," writes Palin.
Had Obama's teleprompter malfunctioned at the 2004 convention, he would not be president. He has always depended on the eloquence of others. So thoroughly hooked on the teleprompter is Obama that the irrepressible Biden jokes about it. "What am I going to tell the president?" Biden asked the crowd at the Air Force Academy after a teleprompter blew over. "Tell him his teleprompter is broken? What will he do then?"
In the final analysis, Going Rogue is a better book than Dreams. No Republican has ever held Palin up as a genius, literary or otherwise, but her narrative is as shrewd, sensitive, and straightforward as its author.
Dreams, on the other hand, is merely a well-crafted fraud.