The Rogue

Searching for the Real Sarah Palin

By Joe McGinniss

Crown. 336 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Michael Smerconish


By now you've heard about a new book, The Rogue, concerning the behavior of a narcissistic public figure set in Alaska during the summer of 2010. What you wouldn't know until reading it is that the protagonist is its author, Joe McGinniss, not his purported subject, Sarah Palin. While the subtitle claims the work concerns "searching for the real Sarah Palin," it is instead the personal diary of an author trolling for rumor and innuendo while living directly next door to his subject for 3 1/2 months.

As was widely reported and debated at the time, McGinniss moved into Catherine Taylor's house in Wasilla on May 22, 2010. What we learn in the book is that the rental came after Taylor had called him every three to four weeks from the prior December through April in an effort to lure McGinniss to her digs. Why was she so anxious to have this particular tenant? Because, like so many other of McGinniss' sources, she had an ax to grind with the Palins - in her case, an ongoing property dispute.

As evidenced by his choice of abode, there were no bounds to how far McGinniss was prepared to go to violate Palin's privacy. The book contains detailed written directions to the Palin homestead and a full-page map. And from his temporary front porch next door, he set up a command post from which to solicit any and all bits of salaciousness about Palin and her family. The exceptions he printed are those offered with sourcing. And it's hard to conceive that he heard anything while in town that was just too preposterous to print. For a project with such a focus, he could have stayed home and used a modem. But that would have defeated his real purpose in setting up shop next door: attention.

Celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley, who has written about Oprah, the Bush family, Nancy Reagan, and Frank Sinatra among others, summed it up best when I solicited her view in an e-mail exchange: "Publicity ploy of the first order."

According to McGinniss, Sarah smoked pot. Sarah snorted coke off an oil drum. Sarah bedded a black athlete. Sarah slept with Todd's business partner. And oh yeah, she's not Trigg's mom. You get the picture. No bathroom stall in Alaska was left undisturbed in his quest for dirt.

What you won't find are footnotes or endnotes sourcing all his trash talk. Instead, the acknowledgments conveniently state: "There are others, both in Alaska and elsewhere, whom I'd like to thank, but so many of them - for fear of harassment by supporters of Sarah Palin - have asked me not to mention them by name. . . ."

So strong was McGinniss' intent to pummel Palin that he ignored consistency so long as a subject area allowed him to string along a series of spellbinders. For example, he asserts that Palin is a racist even as he contends she was also desirous of sleeping with black men.

McGinniss reports that Palin enrolled at the Hilo campus of the University of Hawaii after graduating from high school, and left after only three weeks because "the many people of color there made her nervous." At least this time he quoted someone by name - Palin's dad.

"They were a minority type of thing and it wasn't glamorous," Chuck Heath later explained.

But McGinniss never explained where or in what context Chuck Heath said that, much less to whom. I Googled the quote and found numerous references to Sam Tanenhaus' New Yorker review of Palin's memoir, Going Rogue. That review made reference to a book called Sarah From Alaska, written by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, which contained Heath's original assertion. I wondered what coauthor Walshe thought of McGinniss using the statement to build a case of Palin's racism. So I did something McGinniss never did - I asked her.

"So when Scott and I interviewed Chuck and [Palin's mother] Sally together for the book during an hours-long process that was very pleasant, Chuck did say that to us. It's in our book in full context," Walshe told me.

"He said that one of the reasons she left was she was a 'minority type thing,' meaning there were mostly other Pacific Islanders, etc., as opposed to homogeneous Wasilla. I do not think this makes Palin a racist. She was young and had spent very little time outside of Alaska, but that is what Chuck told us and I take him on his word."

So Walshe did not interpret Heath's statement as an acknowledgment of racism. Not that such a detail would stop McGinniss from building on it. He then reports that Palin transferred with her friend Kim "Tilly" Ketchum to the Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. Why?

Writes McGinnis: "There were people of color, however, even on Waikiki Beach. Sarah and Tilly soon transferred to North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, less than fifty miles from [her birthplace] Sandpoint."

Wait a minute. So Sarah Palin left Waikiki Beach because of a minority population? Where is the support for that statement? He offers absolutely none. And one page later he describes Palin, now postcollege, while trying to earn her stripes as a sports reporter: "Her attitude toward people of color was evolving."

How do we know? An unnamed "friend" says "Sarah and her sisters had a fetish for black guys for a while." He insinuates that she was bedded by Glen Rice, then a standout for the University of Michigan, who later became an NBA player. (At least this time McGinniss did speak to Rice, although what exactly Rice confirmed is not entirely clear.)

So heavily strewed with personal dirt is the book that matters of substance relative to her governing are afterthoughts. Whatever might be new in treatment of long-simmering debates concerning Palin's role in Troopergate or the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act are lost in the invective.

The Palins should thank McGinniss. He gave heft to their penchant for playing the victim card.

The only fair thing about the book is the title, but it's not Palin who is the rogue, it's McGinniss.

Michael Smerconish's columns appear Friday and Sunday in The Inquirer, and can be found at www.philly.com/smerconish. Contact him at www.smerconish.com.