During the week of Sept. 12, Joe McGinniss gave Sarah Palin the one thing no one else ever could, whether he expected to or not. One has to assume not.
Read more nonfiction out this week with the new John Lennon biography.
With the “premiere” of his book The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin (the actual book is out today) as excerpts parsed out in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury, a clash of the old and the new comes into sharp relief. McGinniss, a renowned investigative journalist, famously rented a house next to the Palins in Alaska to get the scoop on the Tea Party lightning rod, former governor and vice presidential candidate. What McGinniss came away with were salacious tales of sexual indiscretion, drugs, the cracking of her ultraconservative veneer and incidents that can only be described as bizarre.
Unfortunately, handfuls of accounts fall in the pools of the unsubstantiated and, therefore, the unverifiable. Sordid recollections of youthful romps with black basketball players brush up against damning accounts of overt racism, thus attempting to clarify the hypocrisies that her detractors already insisted upon and her supporters flatly disbelieved. Extramarital affairs and cocaine-fueled trips and much more cast her as more sinner than saint.
Trudeau, ever a lightning rod in the political sphere with the Doonesbury strip, cast his character Roland Headley, Fox News reporter, as the recipient of McGinniss’ manuscript. His mission as directed by his boss Roger (alluding to Fox News poobah Roger Ailes) was to tease the book on Twitter, but to put Palin in the best possible light, as she was considered an extremely valuable star in the Fox News firmament. Headley does his best, but finds the details hard, if not impossible, to spin.
For the sake of clarification, I am not a Palin supporter but will leave my own opinions of her out of this. Her foes find her the most divisive sort of political character, always projecting virtue but at the same time exhibiting duplicitous tendencies. Her fans lash out and call any negative points, even the most benign ones, slander and patently false. Considering the degree of unaccredited sources here, one has to look at McGinniss’ body of work as a tiebreaker, and even that has to be measured by how you feel about Palin. There is little room to be swayed or dismayed on either shore.
The bigger story is not so much about Palin or the book, but by the comic strip. Let us not mince words here—this is the most attention Doonesbury has received in years. In a world where Jon Stewart and The Daily Show has supplanted printed political humor as the resident gadfly, who knew anyone would be so sparked off by Trudeau’s inclusions? Many people probably didn’t know Doonesbury was still around—after all, in many newspapers it appears on the opinions page, not the comics page. In others, there’s no longer even a comics page to appear on. The endeavor, depending on your stance, has a feeling like an angry letter-writing campaign waged by an entity with a limited amount of stamps. I think Trudeau has every right to do what he’s doing, but on a gut level, it feels too antiquated to be raising such a ruckus.
Speaking of ruckus, we’re back at the Palins as they’re vowing to fight this like they fight everything, as their phalanx of the faithful walk in lockstep with them. It is at this juncture where McGinniss’ miscalculation becomes clear. Sure, he has respect from his community and his credentials, but he moved in next to the Palins to scope them out like the scientist who goes to study the apes by living with them. Then he publishes his data but fails to adequately footnote the times and dates, forgetting that he is dealing, to a degree, with a mind-set that has tendencies to reject commonly held fact. I am reminded of Texas Gov. Rick Perry who denies there is a global temperature shift even as his state burns in an unprecedented drought. Even if he didn’t believe the “liberal hype,” he could at least admit that something here is not right, and this can’t fully be the result of nasty natural cycles. Yet he won’t concede even that and neither will his backers, nor will Palin’s.
That makes McGinniss look particularly foolish. Knowing this is a major stumbling block in regard to Palin’s cheerleading squad, that sometimes believing something not to be is more important than verified facts that it is, McGinniss hasn’t even offered that much self-protection. He’s jumped into the fire with only a Snuggie, when he wouldn’t have gotten very far even if he was wearing a flame-retardant suit. In his zeal to produce a book that would expose Sarah Palin as a charlatan, he left himself equally exposed, presenting a Jackie Collins-styled scandal piece disguised as an important event in the publishing world and himself as a voluntary martyr.
The ensuing backlash has been that even Palin’s most fervent detractors have had to bite into that bitter crow sandwich, believing that this time, justifiably she may have been done wrong. Very few people, deep down, are stupid enough to believe Palin is blameless, without vice or sin. Equally few believe she’s the antichrist. In between, she is a human who may have tried to do some right, probably has done some wrong, and the public’s referendum on whether she’s fit to be a public spokeswoman has to depend on where you see her on that spectrum.
A more even-handed account might have provided just such a spectrum, but the desire to slay the beast unquestionably has produced a questionable work…and possibly a work where actual victimization has taken place. McGinniss’ gift to Sarah Palin then is the mass delivery of the thing so many would rather never have offered her—sympathy.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer/musician/artist hailing from Red Bank, N.J. He is an editor for the pop culture website Popdose as well as regular contributor. As contributor, he has shepherded such site mini-series as 50Prog50 and 50CCM50. He has recorded several albums including Enigmatic, Modernism and the recent instrumental album People Wearing Masks.