Palin's Coming Attractions
What the new Sarah Palin documentary gets right, and wrong, about her politics.
"This is a story that's been hiding in plain sight."
This is how Steve Bannon describes his new documentary, The Undefeated, at a Thursday screening for reporters in the Washington suburbs. The bulk of the movie–stuff he was told to cut down, but didn't–is a biography of Sarah Palin before her BlackBerry rang with John McCain on the line, asking her to be his running mate. If Palin's critics learned this stuff, Bannon just knows they'll change their minds about her.
Bannon has shown his movie to friends in the movie business—"Greenwich Village progressives," he says. "And to a man they did not know she took on the Republican Party this hard in Alaska. They did not know she took on Big Oil in Alaska. A lot of them do not like her, do not agree with her politics, but they have a grudging admiration."
There's a much tougher crowd in the room today: reporters from CNN, the Washington Post, and NBC News. Less than 24 hours later, they're going to be analyzing 24,000-plus e-mails released from Palin's gubernatorial records. For now, they're sitting on comfortable chairs and a sofa watching nearly two hours of narrative documentary, peopled by Palin's closest staffers and friends. One by one the people on-screen are informing the world that Palin was a fantastic success as governor who was brought down by—in the words of Palin's former communications director Meg Stapleton—"Saul Alinsky tactics." Those first 18 months of Palin's term, says Bannon, were a historic success. No wonder they've been papered over.
"Take the best 18 months of your life, and think about what you accomplished," says Bannon. "Think about the best governors we've ever had and match their record to those 18 months. Let's take the last three guys who've had this job [the presidency] and match their records."
The movie, according to the title card, is based on Palin's memoir Going Rogue. Palin was not interviewed for the movie—Bannon did not want to involve her, wanting to keep total control of the production—but her voice pops up again and again in the movie as clips from the audio version of the memoir. Palin talks about her work on the State Oil and Gas Commission, the negotiations for a natural gas pipeline, and the crafting of Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, a tax hike on oil companies. Every political news outlet tore through Going Rogue. It was the rare reviewer who mentioned any of this.
The dream scenario for Bannon is that The Undefeated restarts the clock on Palin. People who read about her popularity as governor, and wondered how she pulled it off, get some facts and old interviews to bolster their impressions; people who know her only as Tina Fey's best act will hang their heads and reassess this person they dismissed as "Caribou Barbie."
But it's not that easy for public figures to change how people think about them. If it was, there'd be a run on Deloreans and they'd all be doing it. The Palin in Bannon's file footage is undeniably, admirably brutal on fellow Republicans who line their pockets. She's also a populist who wants oil companies to give more of their profits to Alaskan taxpayers—and succeeds. Palin keeps taxes low as mayor of Wasilla, and the movie shows local news reports on businesses flocking to the town. But we're not convinced that her tax rates had more to do with that than the fact that housing in the city was far cheaper than housing 45 minutes down the highway to Anchorage. Bannon also deploys clip after clip of file footage of Wasilla's infrastructure improvements under Palin: pipe being laid, men in hardhats carrying girders, families playing in parks. Democrats could grab it all and use it in ads for the stimulus bill.
Now: Compare that with the rhetoric and goals of the Tea Party movement, or of a wing of the Republican Party for which oil taxes and private-public infrastructure projects—when debated in Washington—are rejected out of hand as European-style socialism. If the movie's going to boost Palin as a national figure (Bannon told reporters that he wants her "voice" in the presidential race, at least), how do we extrapolate from the Alaska record? What other state has Alaska's resources? Where else do Republicans tear up their copies of The Road to Serfdom and cut deals with Democrats to regulate business?
It's a rhetorical question, and the 2011 version of Palin doesn't provide any answers. In Bannon's narrative, Palin was pilloried because liberals and Republicans feared what she'd do in Washington. The movie excerpts her 2008 RNC convention speech at length (all of the title cards are quotes from that speech). Palin-haters say it was a performance; Bannon sees it as the culmination of her career thus far. We see vicious attacks on Palin, but only certain kinds of attacks—substance-less, personal, stupid, sexist ones. When Chris Matthews tells his audience that Palin bought new clothes at Nordstrom, Bannon uses file footage of giggly girls jumping up and down with shopping bags. He uses the same footage when Palin's last Wasilla mayoral opponent mocks her as a "spice girl" who shops at "Neiman's." The message: It's the same playbook, and liberals got nothin'. If the argument is that plenty of Palin-hatred is stupid, sexist, and unfounded, Bannon wins.
But that's not all that liberals say about Palin. One line of argument is that she reassigned Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan after he failed to fire her ex-brother-in-law, and while one report absolved Palin, one didn't. Another is that she gets thrown wildly off course by attacks and obsesses over them to the detriment of what she's working on. There's an e-mail record that shows that—a record that might get longer as more e-mails are released.
What do we see on-screen? A quick report on how the ethics complaints filed in 2009, before Palin resigned, were baseless, and Palin's former spokeswoman saying the governor got "Alinsky'd." The resignation, one of the biggest mysteries about Palin and biggest impediments to her national role, is explained away in the terms that Palin originally explained it away: She just couldn't serve the people of Alaska while answering the frivolous charges.
The narrative then leaves Alaska. Palin gets credit for sparking the Tea Party movement. Andrew Breitbart calls conservatives who won't defend Palin "eunuchs," and Mark Levin says conservatives should ignore the advice of any conservative who didn't support Ronald Reagan. The ambitious, winning governor metamorphizes into the Mama Grizzly that liberals hate. Hold on: Is there some way for her to get back the bipartisan mojo she had in Alaska? Is there a better reason why she left office? No answer. The movie's over.
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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Sarah Palin by Mario Tama/Getty Images.