As far as tell-alls go, Meghan McCain’s new campaign memoir, Dirty Sexy Politics , isn’t so shocking-especially coming from a woman who’s known for oversharing . The perplexing back cover, which has a very Def Leppard-consults-for-the-GOP vibe and features a wet-haired McCain in reptilian black boots perched atop a gold-flecked elephant, is about the most outré thing about it. The Washington Post highlights some of the "juiciest" bits , which include a night of too many beers in Nashville, a White House snub from an elegantly coiffed Jenna Bush while Meghan is dressed inappropriately in glitter heels and cornrows, and some Xanax-induced passing out on Election Day. Ostensibly the most provocative part is when Meghan discusses how she was asked to leave the main campaign after some notable media missteps, including an unflattering GQ profile (though she then got her own tour bus-not exactly cruel and unusual punishment).
But more than anything, DSP is YA nonfiction, another rather canny sally in McCain’s ongoing mission to make her version of conservatism-a Republicanism that embraces gay marriage and technology-appealing to young people. Her favorite descriptors include "lame" and "dorky"; she and her campaign buddies pull pranks like leaving hardboiled eggs outside the hotel room of a mean staffer and posting to her blog "crappy pictures of people and journalists we didn’t like"; she makes catty comments about Giuliani’s tan and Romney’s hair; she describes a moment of extreme embarrassment, resembling nothing so much as a mild Cosmo Confession, in which her suitcase spills to reveal her underwear.
Many of her descriptions of her own feelings of inadequacy and her relationship with her parents have an adolescent tinge to them, as well-she throws a sobbing fit over not being told about the Palin decision beforehand. ("To make matters worse, my dad clearly had a hand in the decision to cut me out too.") She's got a method for vaulting past any self-doubt, constructing an alter ego modeled after Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce: "Meggie Mac," McCain confides, is the cheerful, lively version of herself who shows up for interviews and PR events. Political terms like "caucus" are explained without using any big words, clearly aimed at an audience that perhaps hasn’t reached that part of the civics curriculum quite yet.
One of the themes of the book is that adviser Steve Schmidt and a coterie of other old Republican men with poor hygiene-really, she says that!-have it in for young, blond Meghan, whom they accuse of having Brooke Hogan stripper hair. She’s forced to submit to the inevitable makeover, pressed into slimming black pantsuits, and given media/voice coaching. In an effort to dispel any image of her as a spoiled rich brat, McCain notes several times that her internships were paid and that she paid her own way on the bus-the poor girl had to drain her inheritance from her (beer baron) grandfather to do so. It’s a winning pose to strike, and McCain handles it fairly adroitly, flipping the script on herself from "attention-seeker" to "scrappy lovable outsider"-in the midst of a massive attention-grab.
Coverage of McCain’s book has tended to focus on her mostly indirect criticism of Sarah Palin as a choice of running mate-and she does question the very public position Palin put her pregnant daughter in, and her choice to drag her 7-year-old on the campaign bus. What’s more, she calls Palin the "Time Bomb" and asks the reader innocently, "She wasn’t much of a team player, was she?"
But some of the more insightful parts of the book, in fact, come from McCain's parsing of the focus on women’s appearance that Palin’s selection brought: "Two makeup artists had been installed to glam up everybody. And I mean everybody . There was nothing more important, suddenly, than how we looked." I’ve followed McCain’s personal brand-building for a couple of years now, sometimes writing quite critically about her image construction-and so I cringed when she described how hurt she was by the press’s focus on her appearance, and how she scrolled through so many of the Internet comments about her looks and her ditziness, and makes the point that men aren't subjected to the same sort of scrutiny writers like me have given her.
McCain is also sympathetic to Hillary Clinton, writing, "I couldn’t help but wonder about all the parts of herself she had deep-sixed just to keep herself attractive to voters." And about that GQ profile, McCain writes-"If you track down the piece on the Internet now, it won’t seem shocking or make me appear to be as maniacally stupid as it did at the time. That alone is a lesson in context." Palin’s certainly been part of that context shift. Of course, in true YA heroine fashion, after all the campaign pruning and coaching, Meghan goes back to a modified version of her original look and learns an important lesson about being herself, just a girl who’s not afraid to bleach her hair, wrap herself in an elephant snout, and tell us more than we wanted to know.