We can't say we weren't warned. When HarperCollins announced the publication of Sarah Palin's America by Heart, six long months ago, there were signs that it might not be interesting. The book would contain "selections from classic and contemporary readings that have moved her" and "portraits of some of the extraordinary men and women she admires." If you translated this from press release-ese, it sounded like a clip job.
A clip job wouldn't have amused readers who paid $5 or $6 more for this book than they paid for the deeply discounted Going Rogue. The smart thing to do with a Palin book, if you're a reviewer or a reporter, is to skim it. Look for names that will make good headlines. Look for attack lines and anecdotes. If Barack Obama's name appears in the text, you have a story: Sarah Palin Slams President Over [Insert Subject Here].
But I read America by Heart the same way I read Sarah Palin's first No. 1 New York Times best-seller: I bought it, then tore through it. Palin's memoir, aided substantially by the ghostly talents of Lynn Vincent, was addictively readable. Tabloid-y, possibly true details on the buffoons who staffed Palin's gubernatorial office and 2008 campaign staffs were meshed with anecdotes loaned from Jack London about life on the Last Frontier. I think Joe Biden's memoir is underrated, but there's no image in Promises To Keep that sticks like Palin's memory of her husband pulling off his mask, and with it some of the flesh on his face, after finishing an Iron Dog snowmobile * race.
Keep your expectations for the new book low, and they will be met. The Palin of Going Rogue was a mystery, emerging from a quasi-hiatus in which she communicated online and in infrequent Fox News interviews to tell her life story. The Palin of America by Heart is the Palin who appears on Fox News from her home studio overlooking Lake Lucille, who gives lengthy speeches about freedom at Tea Party rallies, whose tweets get more attention than entire books by Mitt Romney.
What do we learn that we didn't know before? We have a longer version of her reading list. The chapters of America by Heart consist of thoughts from Palin, excerpts from articles or speeches she likes, more thoughts from Palin, and occasionally some reminders of how she really hasn't gotten over the 2008 campaign.
"Remember the 2001 interview about the Constitution by then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama that surfaced during the 2008 campaign?" She then rehashes an idea she's repeated on her Tea Party tour. When Obama argued that "the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties," she says, he was accidentally describing why he wasn't fit to govern. "The epitome of progressive thinking," writes Palin, "was Barack Obama's promise just before the 2008 election, that 'we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.' " Palin's "rogue" moments that the media dismissed as weird, out-of-context attacks on Obama in 2008 are now part of the Tea Party's catechism. She even makes multiple references to "clinging," in case anyone forgot that Obama once belittled guns and religion.
Nothing that's happened since the campaign seems to have inspired her as much. A strange literary tic of America by Heart recurs whenever Palin starts to describe her life since leaving the governorship of Alaska. She sets a scene, describes how she got there, and then—moves on. Her run-ins with real Americans are less opportunities to tell readers what those Americans think than occasions to tell us how deeply she understands them.
"We've visited Walter Reed Hospital to meet mighty warriors," writes Palin, "and I've twice visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan receive treatment."
The reader knows what's coming next. Palin, the world's most famous holder of a degree in journalism, will introduce those warriors. She pivots immediately. "Just before my visit," she writes, "my brother sent me a description of the American military man that I think is spot-on—with the exception that it doesn't include American military women." There follow 19 paragraphs reprinting the entire letter, versions of which can be found in any number of places online. The mighty warriors retreat into the scenery, but Palin really, really appreciated them.
And the whole book is like this. Palin is not living a celebrity's life, you silly liberals—she is living the life of the mind. She is reading books by conservatives on topics that interested her and giving HarperCollins the chance to reprint chunks of them. "Reading about the faith roots of America in Matthew Spalding's book We Still Hold These Truths," she writes, "I learned that, from the very beginning, our Founders expressed a profound belief in religious tolerance." Later, she cites Newt Gingrich's book Rediscovering God in America. She cites not just Milton Friedman, but libertarian godfather Leonard Read. If it starts to read like one of William Bennett's primers, she's got that covered, because she cites his The American Patriot's Almanac and writes that Bennett is "a pretty great patriot himself."
This is Palin's game: She wants the lamestream media to make fun of her clip file. She remembers that during a family trip, "all we had for entertainment was each other and a pile of Reader's Digests," a sparkly wink at Ronald Reagan and the way the press derided his intelligence over his love for that magazine.
But did Reagan ever seem to be trying too hard? More relevant to her political hopes, does Barack Obama? Palin's publishing strategy mirrors Obama's, after all. He followed a memoir with a travelogue-cum-policy book; she's doing the same thing. The woman who rocked the Xcel Center, deriding Obama by saying "the American presidency is not a journey of personal discovery," is well into her second year of a journey—and journal—of personal discovery, free of responsibility, with lots of time to collect insights that other people can use.
By the end of the book, those insights work the way a John Cage composition works: You have to hear what isn't there. The few passages in which Palin expresses sympathy with Obama concern big problems that cannot be disposed of by quoting Whittaker Chambers. In discussing the BP spill—one of the few actual news events of the past year mentioned here—Palin homes in on the press conference in which Obama said his daughter had asked him, "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"*
"Who among us hasn't had the experience of a simple question from an innocent child bringing our ego crashing back to earth?" writes Palin. "Of course Malia's daddy hadn't 'plugged the hole'—because doing so was beyond his capability, even as the most powerful man in the world."
At the time the spill was occurring—Obama's press conference was in May—Palin didn't say much more than this. In a famously awkward interview with Bill O'Reilly, she responded to a specific question about what the country needed to do by saying "we need to make sure that all technology is being thrown at this problem." Pressed by O'Reilly, she complained: "We haven't had the assurance by the president that that has been his top priority. Instead, what his top priority is, Bill, is cap and tax."
Basically, she had nothing. She knew what she didn't like about Obama, she knew what other people didn't like, and she knew her principles, but the details of what government should do—well, that was tricky. Next question? Reading this book, which has a first run of 1 million copies, it's clear that since the wonderful experience of becoming a celebrity and the traumatic experience of losing to Obama/Biden, she hasn't had much to say. She will have plenty of time to say it.
Corrections, Nov. 24, 2010: The original version of this article referred to Todd Palin's participation in the Iditarod sled dog race. He was a champion snowmobile racer. The error was introduced in editing. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also described Malia Obama as President Obama's youngest daughter. Malia is older than Sasha. (Return to the corrected sentence.)