"The Rogue" embodies the art of the hatchet job

Joe McGinniss' new book gives Palin critics new ammunition, but also helps deepen the image of her as media victim


Matt Dallek
September 22, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

Describing the moment when he rented a house next door to Sarah and Todd Palin, Joe McGinniss writes how in "forty years in the business ... I've never had a piece of luck like this." But good books require more than a lucky break. "The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin," officially released on Tuesday, has already received a fair bit of media attention. But its claims -- Palin snorted cocaine, has a subpar sex life and tramples on any foe in her path – actually arrive at a moment of limbo in Sarah Palin's political career. It's difficult to imagine how she will ever again hold elected office. She long ago left the governor's chair and has so far sidestepped the GOP's once wide-open presidential primary race. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have largely replaced her in the pantheon of Tea Party heroes.

Increasingly defined as a media sensation rather than a political insurgent, Palin will likely continue to exploit her celebrity status; she will rake in millions of dollars while keeping herself and her family in the public eye.

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Enter "The Rogue," which may well help Palin in her new career path. It's been well chronicled how McGinniss' book is laced with anonymous sources and numerous allegations of sex, drugs and other bad behavior on the part of the Palins. These charges -- salacious though they are -- don't necessarily make the book all that newsworthy. What's most notable about "The Rogue" is that in its claims, its use of sources and in its broader concerns, it stands alongside a generation of exposé books that have sought to cast particularly controversial national politicians as the ultimate hypocrites and as monstrous frauds.

Such exposés, woven into the democratic fabric, are traceable to the nation's founding. One pamphlet charged that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had had an affair with Maria Reynolds -- a charge that ultimately led to the duel in which Aaron Burr shot and killed Hamilton. In the early Republic, historian Mark Feldstein has written, enemies used "the media as an instrument of political warfare."

In his book "Poisoning the Press," about columnist Jack Anderson and Richard Nixon, Feldstein reminds us that "venomous editors [also] savaged Jefferson with ... bile." "One newspaper claimed that the Chief Executive kept 'as his concubine, one of his slaves' and with 'this wench Sally, our president has had several children.'" While "predatory politics and merciless media" faded in the 19th century, Feldstein argues that it "returned with a vengeance" in the mid-to-late 20th century.

McGinniss' book suggests that that era is still ascendant, and "The Rogue" can be understood as the latest addition to a lengthy list of scandal books, '"sex-posés" (Feldstein's term), and vituperative takedowns of marginal and major politicians alike. Moreover, these books -- far from being tossed into the dustbin -- have an impact. They shape politicians' public images, frame debates about whether somebody is fit for national office, and fuel already simmering battles that pit the politician's defenders against his or her equally committed and ferocious foes.

Virtually every first couple in modern times has confronted some form of McGinniss-like exposé during their time in the nation's spotlight. Kitty Kelley's 1991 "unauthorized biography" of former first lady Nancy Reagan charged that she was having sex with Frank Sinatra when Ronald Reagan was governor of California. Her book didn't fade away quickly, either; instead, People magazine announced in a headline that both "sources and victims" were warring over the allegations featured in Kelley's takedown. And at the same time, Maureen Dowd pointed out in the New York Times that this "new book ... by Kitty Kelley, could ... add allegations of scandalous sexual behavior to the folklore of the Reagan era."

Kelley's book was actually milder than the invective that the Clintons soon had to endure. And the attacks on the Clintons rather effortlessly slipped into the popular discourse. As pundits chatted about allegations against Clinton, the charges often drew mainstream news coverage.

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In "Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America," Nixon's former national security aide Roger Morris linked the Clintons to such things as "drug money and organized crime." His book relied on anonymous sources and tarnished the Clintons with sexual among other moral and legal transgressions.

"All sorts of scandalous and criminal things are alleged and believed about Clinton by his enemies," journalist Martin Walker said in a piece about Morris' book. "An almost Manichean standoff between the loathers and the loyalists" had sunk roots in American politics; "Clinton seems to inspire this kind of antagonistic intensity, and all books about him seem condemned to fuel it."

The industry of books about Palin -- pro and con -- not to mention the documentaries and commentary, reflects a similarly Manichean struggle over who she is and what she represents. And, of course, when the Clintons were the topic, the scandal-mongering skyrocketed. One-time New York Times Magazine editor Edward Klein accused Hillary Clinton of lesbianism in his takedown of her life. He charged that her sexual tendencies had pervaded her public positions as well. "The culture of lesbianism has influenced Hillary's political goals and personal life since she was a student at Wellesley," he asserted.

President Barack Obama has endured his share of innuendo, conspiratorial charges and other byzantine accusations, as well. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth leader Jerome Corsi is among those who have written, for instance, that Obama's birth certificate was fraudulent so he was never actually eligible for the White House. (McGinniss writes toward the end of his book that there remained "one unanswered question ... Trig. Is he really Sarah's child?" Conspiracies surface in almost all of these books.)

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Money -- to state the obvious -- is one factor behind such books; the books often become major bestsellers. Partisans also play a role. Critics often use the morsels included in these books as clubs for bashing their enemies; in the meantime, the politicians' defenders hype the books, often unwittingly, by decrying publication as proof of their enemies' ruthlessness. The response from authors and the authors' supporters is that political hypocrisy on the part of the politician justifies the focus on personal misdeeds. Klein, for instance, claims on his website that his book "exposes the truth" about Hillary Clinton's hidden sexual activities.

Similarly, McGinniss explained in an interview that "What makes some of the things about [Palin's] personal life relevant" is that her image "has very little to do with who she really is." The carefully cultivated impression of a "grizzly-mama" who is pro-family values "turns out not to be true." Palin has so manipulated her image -- so assiduously covered up her true self -- that her efforts surpass even Richard Nixon's evasions. McGinniss, author of "The Selling of the President," about Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign, regards Palin as more duplicitous than Nixon ever was.

The exposé authors, therefore, claim that politicians who lie to the public about who they are deserve to be exposed. Their personal lives become fair game and the norms and obligations that most reporters adhere to fall by the wayside in the search for the "real Palin" or the "real Obama."

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Like its predecessors, McGinniss' "The Rogue" is likely to have at least some impact on Palin's image and the debate about her role in American life. The back-and-forth between McGinniss and the Palins has created a carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the book's publication. Palin posted on Facebook that McGinniss was using his perch to peer into her 9-year-old daughter's bedroom. McGinniss responds that this ludicrous charge showed just how vicious Palin could be. Todd Palin gleefully trumpets negative reviews of "The Rogue." McGinniss, for his part, accuses the Palins of fanning "fear" and using intimidation to silence their critics.

While "The Rogue" gives Palin's critics new ammunition, Palin's defenders have used, and will continue to use, the book as proof that her enemies will not stop in their single-minded quest to destroy Palin. Thus, a book like "The Rogue" actually helps the former governor, deepens the image of her as a media victim, lending the veneer of credence to her charge that enemies are out to tarnish her reputation at any price.

It's improbable that Palin will mount a serious run for national office any time soon. But the publication of "The Rogue" suggests that she'll continue to draw a crowd, as surely as a circus does. And Joe McGinniss'' book will help her fill the seats. 

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Matt Dallek

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