Sarah From Alaska
The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education
of a New Conservative Superstar

by Scott Conroy
& Shushannah Walshe

Review by
C. Brooks Kurtz

Public Affairs Books: New York, 2009

320 pages

November 2009


Reviewer's note:

Many new readers don't know this, but I have a journalism degree and worked at newspapers on and off throughout my 20s and early 30s. When reading anything written by journalists — especially longer pieces of political nonfiction — do not ever forget that all journalists are Liberals, even when they believe, in their heart of hearts, they're objective and/or unbiased. If a journalist isn't a Liberal, you'll know it, because they are constantly referred to as "conservative reporter xyx said that ..." Not the exact phrasing, but close. With that said, read on. — C. Brooks Kurtz

   A tale of two books

I have looked forward to Sarah From Alaska (SFA), by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, since I heard of its announced publication. Before reading, I had three questions I wanted to get better answers to:

  1. Could two reporters embedded with Palin throughout the campaign objectively report the good and the bad of Sarah Palin without resorting to the potshots that creep into seemingly every report about Gov. Palin from The Medea?
  2. Did Gov. Palin botch the campaign, or did the campaign — specifically her handlers — "botch" Gov. Palin?
  3. After reading SFA, will I still support Gov. Palin as passionately as I did before reading SFA?

Briefly, yes, the handlers botched Palin, and yes, now more than ever.

Let's call Sarah From Alaska "A Tale of Two Books." Supporters of Gov. Palin will relish the first 192 pages of the book, as it confirms (by Liberal writers no less) what those of us who followed the campaign suspected: Palin was mishandled from the outset, and instead of playing to her strengths, the campaign attempted to box her in and put the circular peg into a square hole.

The final hundred pages of SFA, well, not so much. I'm not an Alaskan, not from Alaska, never been to Alaska. I work 60 hours a week and have a writing life outside of Conservatives4Palin (C4P) and my own site — frankly, I don't have time to follow the ins-and-outs of Alaskan politics. This isn't an excuse, it's a fact. With that said, I'll begin with my thoughts of the first 192 pages before getting into the last 100 or so.

McCain Campaign versus Sarah Palin

I'm a fan of political writing, POTUS race writing and political theory and tactics in general, and I have no problem stating — with all the hyperbole necessary — that if Conroy and Walshe's account is credible (I believe it is), the McCain Campaign may be the first high-stakes political campaign in American history to take a polished diamond that attempted to turn it into a lump of coal.

Although his focus declined in later years, I can only wonder what a young Hunter Thompson would have said about Sarah Palin. Thompson, the late Gonzo journalist extraordinaire and one of America's greatest political reporters period, Democrat-Libertarian to the gills, wrote the best campaign book ever penned: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: '72. Perhaps his writing would have put a spike in Sarah Palin before she ever got off the ground, but reading of her razor-sharp political instincts, her at-times cut-throat decision-making and her ability to see a picture far bigger than the embarrassingly unprepared McCain Campaign, I can't help but think he's in hell laughing his ass off.

Even as the writers are critical of many of Palin's decisions, I'm sitting there reading, slapping myself on the forehead saying, "dammit, I knew she knew exactly what to do but they wouldn't let her do it!" Reading the middle section of the book — beginning with the Alaskan political battles and ending with the failed POTUS run — is like reading an autopsy report, and virtually every wound inflicted on Gov. Palin was inflicted by the McCain Campaign.

I don't say this through the rosy-goggles of a Palin supporter — I was prepared to lose a little respect for her, and to see a bit of the bloom come off the rose. After seeing what her own campaign staff did, I can't believe she stuck it out. From the overpriced wardrobe (which she repeatedly expressed concern about before the story broke) to her sequestration from The Medea (against her will), they took the one figure who could have carried John McCain over the finish line and beat her down. It's incredible, and because of their disorganization, petty squabbling, rumor-mongering and absence of tactical thinking, we have three more years with The Dear Leader. Egos are cute, but nationalized health care isn't a joke.

Recently, I wrote that Gov. Palin's Facebook postings seemed to play like verbatim pages out of Robert Greene's series on amoral tactics, and as I've now made my way through Gov. Palin's upbringing, her early rise in politics, her battles in Alaska and how she handled herself off-camera during the campaign, I can't help but think she's the reincarnation of Niccolo Machiavelli.

Here's the one thing Gov. Palin screwed up, something everyone (including Gov. Palin, I assume) already knows: The Katie Couric interview was a disaster, and I must admit I was both relieved and disappointed to hear her most supportive handlers admit that the editing was questionable, but the questions were fair.

Everything else — all of it — was not a disaster of her making, but of the campaign that was run about as coherently as a schoolyard football game. For those who didn't follow this stuff literally hour-to-hour during the campaign, you cannot imagine how frustrating her apparent handling was. This is a woman who is a genius at retail politics, at off-the-cuff interviews, and as soon as she was announced as McCain's running mate, she was kept far away from reporters and absurdly prepped for two sit-down interviews with Liberal Medea figures. What's fascinating is when she "goes rogue" near the end of the campaign, the reporters following her begin to warm up to her, even as she was being savaged on a national scale, often with the help of campaign insiders.

Daily, I would listen to talk radio, watch the news, read the blogs as my father and I yelled back and forth at each other about it: why aren't they cutting her loose and letting her go out and win this campaign? Keep in mind, like many people at Conservatives4Palin, I was rooting for Palin to get the nod before most people outside Alaska even knew show she was. I learned about her from my father, who learned about her by listening to talk radio and reading a few Conservative media stories about her. I was chomping at the bit when I sensed McCain might select her, and when I heard the news, I began honking my car horn as I drove towards Ada-OK. I have never invested emotional capital in a politician, and I freely admit Gov. Palin was and remains different in that regard. With that said, knowing what I already knew and then reading about the campaign from two relatively unbiased observers, every justification I've told myself for going all in for Gov. Palin was solidified. I've said it before and I'll say it again — barring actions and events far outside the realm of reasonable assumption, I would support Gov. Palin in any office she chose to pursue, be it POTUS or Governor of the Great State of Oklahoma or head of the Wasilla PTA. For those of us who've gone all-in, she's done nothing but hit the jackpot, repeatedly.

What is clear is that, on the campaign, they could have sent McCain back to his ranch in Arizona, devoted every last dime to Palin and the McCain campaign would have won. She fought like a pit bull to get them to re-commit to Michigan, yet they wouldn't relent. Hell, she even offered to pay for the freaking trip if they'd let her and husband Todd spend a day or two connecting with people they had so much in common with. It tends to be forgotten that until McCain dumped Michigan and then suspended his campaign to stupidly go back to Washington DC to address the financial crisis, they were leading in the polls. Leading! That this horribly run campaign ever led anything is spectacular — I knew it was bad, but I didn't realize how disconnected from reality and, well, political campaigning the big dogs of the campaign actually were.

Sarah From Alaska is no hagiography but for its first eight chapters, it's beyond fair. Much of my disagreement with the authors comes in the tiniest perception of details, which is perfectly natural. Many things Palin did or wanted to do that they saw as disastrous (so many of her extemporaneous remarks) were things that fired up the very people trying to drag McCain across the finish line. After Tina Fey made her first appearance as Gov. Palin, her immediate reaction was "that was funny now when am I going on SNL?" Gov. Palin may have had zero national political experience, but she immediately knew the best way to decrease the impact Fey made (and forget the interview, Tina Fey was by far the most influential critic of Palin, befitting the role of jester to a T) was by facing up to her — turns out, Fey wouldn't do it, which explains why they only crossed paths as they walked across the stage.

If anyone is interested in learning how not to handle a rising political superstar in the Presidential campaign, the first 192 pages of Sarah From Alaska are a pretty good primer.

Return to Alaska

The final 100 pages are, well, different. If I were to offer a guess, I would say that the first 192 pages were "easy" in the sense that the writers were covering who Sarah Palin was. The closing chapters deal with the fallout from the '08 election and Palin's return to Alaska, and in what I would guess to be 25,000 words over four chapters, I'd bet fewer than 1,000 of them reflect positively on Gov. Palin. They paint her as a paranoid, opportunistic, vague, distanced and petty political figure, one forever caught up in trivial parochial battles while focusing on her own national political image.

I mentioned earlier that I don't follow Alaskan politics, which is either a good or bad thing depending on how one wants to spin it. The bulk of the final four chapters deal with political matters serious and petty in Juneau while glossing over the horrid treatment, ad hominem attacks, Medea assaults on her family, her integrity etc. They forget entirely to mention that her church burned down.

As a writer and a former journalist, the most insipid way the authors point their bias is how they arrange pro and con statements. Any debater knows that you want the last word, and in every "debate" set up in the closing passages of Sarah From Alaska, they find one or two people to say something good about Gov. Palin before letting her critics rip away.

Bear in mind, I believe the authors did a good job — they answered the questions I had, and they do a good job answering them. Yet, at the point we hit the debacle regarding Palin's biggest setback as an Alaskan politician, my patience grew thin. To be brief, the man Palin nominated for Attorney General of Alaska didn't get confirmed, the first time this has ever happened in Alaska. The man in question was Wayne Anthony Ross, and he's apparently quite the personality in Alaska (not from Alaska, don't know, don't really care, not the point). Ross drove a Hummer with a vanity license plate bearing his initials: WAR. After referencing him and his initials the first time, the authors opted not to refer to him thereafter as Ross, as in the standard "I had a bad day," Ross said. Rather, they use his initials "W.A.R." by my count, 11 times in three pages. Alaskan readers can answer this question: Is this how Ross is referred to in the Alaskan media, and if so, is it by his request?

This is a standard Liberal journalistic method, no different from the use of the term "tea-baggers" and, while adding nothing to the quality of the book, its passages like the aforementioned — and there are many in the last four chapters — where they go from being witnesses to history to being repeating the standard talking points used against Palin. They zero in on her thin skin, and somehow manage to see Palin's reaction to David Letterman's comments about her 14-year-old daughter as over-the-top and poorly-played. Perhaps it's because Conroy & Walshe spent so much time in Alaska that they weren't aware of how savagely Gov. Palin's critics outside of Alaska continued to go after her.

I was expecting some analysis of the Medea bias against Gov. Palin, yet time and time again they state that Palin is being petty and trivial for taking the unfounded attacks on herself and her family personally, and for reacting to them. In short, they begin making the same mistakes her handlers during the campaign made: sit back and take it and we'll call you magnanimous, otherwise you're vindictive. In equal measure, they excuse the growing number of trivial ethics complaints against Gov. Palin as things Gov. Palin should have ignored, even though they were costing her huge amounts of time and political/fiduciary capital.

One thing the authors can't help is dated analysis — far too much time is spent regarding the effect her resignation would have on her future. The authors seem to buy into the notion that it was a politically disastrous decision, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. It's played out, so far, to be a stroke of political genius. The real disconnect for the Conservative reader (me being a Conservative reader) is their comparison of Gov. Palin and Mitt Romney, and their reference to Romney being one of the "most respected voices on the right to counter the Obama administration's economic policy ..." Uh, when did this happen? I'm sure Romney's been a critic of Pres. Obama's economic policy, but it's had no impact and to call him one of the Right's most respected voices is just short of absurd. Granted, The Medea love Mitt Romney just like they love Mike Huckabee, because he's not Sarah Palin and, as of this writing, has no chance of beating Pres. Obama.

Ultimately, I think the authors are correct on a very important point: after the campaign, Sarah Palin the politician was too big to return to the daily grind of Alaskan politics. Who could blame her? That's no knock on Alaska, Alaskans or their political system, but it is the difference between driving a Ferrari on a race-track for a few months and then having to return to commuting in a Ford Focus. My state of Oklahoma probably has one of the worst national reputations as a backwater state full of hayseeds, yet after reading how business is conducted at the Alaskan legislature, I kept getting the sense a hog and a chicken were set to wander across the chamber floor (if Alaskans have anything to be offended about, that particular section of Sarah From Alaska would be the part — otherwise, the state comes off looking quite good).

One observation I have about this, though: if Gov. Palin so dreaded going back to Alaska, why has she stayed there? Her life would presumably be much easier if she lived in the lower 48, and while moving from one's lifelong home is difficult, if one had a shot to win the Presidency of the United States, one would think she'd have packed up and headed out the day after she left office if she so dreaded the place.

To conclude, I'm heartened that Gov. Palin has always wanted to fight the right fights. She made some mistakes along the way, but considering the withering amount of Medea fire she's come under, that's hardly surprising. The information I wanted, I got — she's a tireless fighter who doesn't have a problem with getting her hands dirty, and she's obviously well aware that Conservatives are behind her so long as she doesn't start selling us out. Considering her latest Facebook note about Rep. Pelosi still trying to ram a 2,000+ page health care bill down our throats, I'm not worried about her spine, and have no indication I'll need to get worried.

I was a supporter before I read Sarah From Alaska, and I'm an even stronger supporter now.


© 2009 C. Brooks Kurtz

Sarah From Alaska on Facebook

C. Brooks Kurtz's related essay
The Sound and the Fury:
Friedersdorf, signifying nothing

at the Conservatives4Palin archive

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