Sarah Palin's new best-seller reveals that she's still stuck on 2008.
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."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Sarah Palin by John Moore/Getty Images.